Lynn Broderick | Apr 6, 2018

What’s in a Surname?

This is the first in a three-part series about surnames, surname distribution maps, and where to find surname distribution maps online.

At RootsTech 2017, keynote speaker LeVar Burton showed a scene from the classic television miniseries Roots, where Kunta Kinte resists accepting a new name from his master and is whipped into verbal acceptance of the name Toby. Those attending felt the tension of the scene, and tears were visible during its viewing. Burton stated that although Kunta Kinte demonstrated submission to his slave master in the moment he uttered the name Toby, the very core of Kinte did not change. This scene highlights the emotional response that comes with a name.

The acquisition of a surname, sometimes called a family name, varies among cultures. Within English-speaking countries, a child is typically given the surname of the father, and this name is often referred to as a “last name.” Other traditions use the surname inherited by the mother from her father, and still others use a combination of the parents’ surnames.

Some surnames are hyphenated; some are linked by a conjunction. The order of surnames—if children are given more than one—or which parental surname is applied may be determined by local custom or by law. The African-American community faces an unusual challenge of name changes, due to slavery (as mentioned above).

Matrilineal surnames are also used among some cultures. The matrilineal surname can be traced only as far as the end of the known maternal lineage, since, in English-speaking countries at least, the surname may change each generation. Nevertheless, a matrilineal surname would follow the mitochondrial DNA of the child back in time. This is of particular interest to a genealogist as DNA becomes another source to be consulted. The patrilineal surname is also used in DNA studies, since it is used to establish y-DNA projects.

Surnames came about at different times in different areas of the world and have acted as another source of identification for an individual. Until recently, there has been no standardized spelling of a surname; instead, a surname was spelled phonetically, and its spelling was thus subjectively dependent on the scribe. Sometimes, scribes would spell the same name in multiple ways within a single document.

Names are one of the core identifiers in placing each individual in our family tree. Surnames can be categorized by the process of obtainment or by the most likely origin:

  1. Patronymic–—i.e., named after the father with affixes determined by culture. Examples: Hansen, Johnson, Hansdatter, Johnsdotter (this type of name depends on the country of origin and the gender of the child).
  2. Occupational—i.e., named after the labor the parents performed. Examples: Baker, Potter, Smith.
  3. Geographical—i.e., named after a place name or a topographical feature. Examples: London, Hill.
  4. Descriptive—i.e., named after a physical characteristic or personality trait. Examples: Young, Smart.
  5. Matronymic—i.e., named after the mother, usually when paternity is questioned or when it is a posthumous birth; it may also occur when the mother is of a higher social standing, such as with nobility.
  6. Natural—i.e., names related to animals, plants, or elements, such as Fox, Bean, or Berg.
  7. Other—i.e., named after his or her birth status. Examples: Esposito (abandoned), Incogniti (unknown), Innocenti (innocent one), Octavius (the eighth).

During his RootsTech 2017 presentation on surnames, Darris Williams recommended checking the FamilySearch Catalog for surname resources. He said to “search for ‘Names, Personal’ or include the country of interest for a more focused list of sources.” In his example, the search results for Germany included the following categories, subcategories, and the number of sources available:

Germany – Genealogy – Names, Personal – Collected works (2)

Germany – Names, Personal – Dictionaries (15)

Germany – Names, Personal – Handbooks, manuals, etc. (3)

Germany – Names, Personal – Indexes (2)

Germany – Names, Personal – Maps (2)

Germany – Names, Personal – Periodicals (2)

Germany – Names, Personal (79)

Depending on the purpose for researching the surname, one source may be of more value than another.

In Williams’s experience, most researchers begin with surname dictionaries. One book he highly recommended for more information was Surnames and Genealogy: A New Approach by George Redmonds.

He also recommended an organization familiar to veteran genealogists, the Guild of One-Name Studies (GOONS). This site lists over 8,400 surnames and variants that are currently being researched. The Guild describes a One-Name Study as “a project researching all occurrences of a surname, as opposed to a particular pedigree (ancestors of one person) or descendancy (descendants of one person or couple).” A list of principles that govern a surname study is provided on the site. It adds that some researchers incorporate “an associated DNA surname project to assist with the analysis of origins.”

Williams said GOONS is “probably the very best source for surname studies” and that its journal has always been “one of the best sources for good research ideas and help on improving [his] technique and skills.”

A study of the surnames in your family tree has the potential to add cultural, social, and historical context to your research. There may even be an interesting story or two that you will discover along the way.

Lynn Broderick

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