Maegan Kasteler | Feb 18, 2019

What’s in a Name?

Noted author Michael N. Henderson talked to us at RootsTech 2018 about the value of your name. Henderson likened your name to a crown, explaining that your name is full of your history and can show you how, when, and where your family comes from and where you can go in the future.

We are all familiar with the phrase from one of William Shakespeare's beloved tales, Romeo and Juliet: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Why, then, do our names matter so much to us? Where do they come from? And why are they important to family history and genealogy research?

Surnames, commonly referred to as last names or family names, have been used throughout the world. Around the time of the Roman Empire this concept became popular through Europe and the Mediterranean. The practice slowly died out during the middle ages, but it gradually re-emerged towards the end of the middle ages.

For the past few hundred years, it has been the law or custom (in most parts of the world) for a woman to assume the surname of her husband upon marriage and for any subsequent children to inherit the father’s surname. More recently, however, the usage of hyphenated names, combining two different surnames into one, and using matrilineal (maternal) surnames is becoming more common.

It is commonly seen as a sign of respect and authority to use someone's surname as an identifier, preceded by titles such as Ms., Miss, Mrs., Mr., Sir, Dr., and others.

In some cultures, family names are placed before the given name. Known commonly as the Eastern name order, this practice is most common in East Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

Surnames were created in a variety of ways. In Scandinavian countries the Icelandic naming system was commonly used. In this system, last names are derived from the name of the child's father, also known as a patronymic name. Common examples include Hansen, meaning son of Hans; Johansen, son of Johan; or Fredriksdatter, daughter of Fredrik.

In other cultures, a child inherits the given name of one of their parents as a sort of pseudo-surname. For example, Daniel Lamb's child would perhaps be known as Adam Daniel.

Other surnames are derivatives of occupations. These types of last names include Smith, Miller, Farmer, Thatcher, Shepherd, and Potter.

Toponymic surnames, or location surnames, have also faded in and out of popularity. These last names are also known as location surnames and can refer to a geographical location such as the name of a town or a landmark. These names include Windsor, Camp, Hill, Bush, Lake, Forest, Hamilton, Murray, and more.

One of the last types of family names are those derived from nicknames. These are mostly based off of personal characteristics. Examples include Short (Schwartzkpf), Young, and Whitehead.

So why is all this important to your family history research? In some instances, surnames can be used to help fill holes in your tree. Let’s say you find a woman in your tree named Maria Jonsdatter—and that's the end, you have nothing after that. Knowing the common ways surnames were formed can help you deduce that you might be looking for a father named Jon or Jons.

You can also learn about your ancestors by understanding the practice of occupational surnames. Maybe you find someone in your tree named Samuel Cook; it could be assumed in most circumstances that this man or one of his progenitors was a cook. And hey, maybe the kitchen genius gene runs in the family!

All of these rules can help you fill gaps in your tree and learn more about your ancestors and, consequently, yourself.

So, while a rose would still be as sweet if known by another name, and perhaps your ancestors would too, names as they are can be one of your sweetest tools.

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Maegan Kasteler

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