Last names: How your remote ancestors got the name you bear

From the Philadelphia Press

Did you ever think that every name must originally have meant something? The letters did not coin themselves together in a haphazard way, and no matter how much the name has been twisted or perverted, it originally meant something and was intended to be applicable to the person who first bore it.

Last name crests of American families - vintage

First names first

In early times, amid primitive conditions of civilization, people had only one name, and that name was given because of some circumstance connected with the child’s birth or some physical peculiarity, or in the hope that the child would grow up to have the qualities the name denoted.

The best example of this is to be found in Bible names, in the early days of Jewish history. Esau, meaning hairy, was so called because he was hairy from his birth; Moses, drawn out, because he was taken from the water; Benoni, son of my sorrow; Ruth, beauty, because it was hoped the child would be beautiful.

Some names no longer descriptive

In the very early times, therefore, each person possessed a name that was individually significant and apropos. But when, with advancing civilization, it became necessary, in order to preserve family and tribal distinctions, to name children after the progenitors, names originally applicable lost their appropriateness.

For example, the first girl named Blanche must have been a blonde, but how many Blanches we can all recall to day who are types of the perfect brunette?

When the Roman father who first called his son Quintus gave him the name, it must have been because the latter was the “fifth child” and a boy. Quintus was a very common Roman name, but later was applied indiscriminately, whether the boy was the “fifth” or not.

he first Phillip was undoubtedly a “lover of horses,” or was intended to be such. But how many people today give this name a thought as to its meaning, and, worse yet, how many men bear this name without knowing that it means anything at all?

That a young man should know nothing of the meaning of his own name seems ridiculous. Yet this is true of the majority. Of course, in many cases, it is impossible to get at any meaning. This is essentially true of last names, for often this form has been altered or they have come from other languages of which their owners have no knowledge, or their origin is shrouded in the mists of obscure antiquity.

But the great general truth still holds that every name was originally significant. In the case of modern first names, or so-called Christian names, there are very few indeed of which we do not know the meaning and the origin.

Two brothers in arms c1860 - Civil war

Two unidentified soldiers during the Civil War, around 1862

The history of last names: Some of the most common surnames

But what a vast number of our common surnames [last names], like Smith, Jones, Johnson, Williams, Harris, Brown, the many Macs, the various O’s, like O’Brien, and many similar ones? These are all easy enough to explain.

The commonest of all last names is Smith. Why is this the commonest last name? The answer is simple enough. The word “smith” originally meant a worker in rough materials. There were many different kinds of smith — goldsmith, tinsmith, silversmith, blacksmith, etc. Later, when a more developed social condition created a demand for distinctive names, certain men of this profession took from it the surname of Smith.

Here is the principle of taking a name from an occupation, one of the commonest origins of last names. And as there were so many different workers, or smiths, goldsmith, silversmith, etc were merged into the common class of plain Smith. The result of all this is that today, “Altho all smiths are not Smiths, the Smiths are even more numerous than the smiths.”

Last names: When in Rome

Occupations, as long ago as Greek and Roman times, furnished an extra name by which to distinguish men. Most Roman gentlemen had three names, the first generally some common name, corresponding to our ordinary Christian names, then the clan name, and, finally, a third name generally acquired in later life, indicating a personal peculiarity or some event in the man’s life.

One of the earliest Roman historians was named Quintus Tabius Pictor. The last name he acquired from his occupation of writer or word-painter. He is, in fact, the first Mr Painter.

Thousands of our names have this origin. It would be easy to make a long list, but a few occupation names naturally suggest themselves: Butcher, Carpenter, Driver, Potter, Sailor, Tailor or Taylor, Weaver, and like names from other languages, such as Zimmerman (which means carpenter or woodman).

Five soldiers, four unidentified, in Union uniforms of the 6th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Militia

Last names: A family’s heritage

Americans are not as curious about the origin of their names as people in olden times. The Romans, when they could not get at the etymology of a proper name generally tried to account for it by making up a story about the man who first bore it.

A good example of this is the name Scaevola, which means “left-handed.” This was the name of an aristocratic family in Rome, and to account for its origin somebody, probably to flatter the family, made up the following story familiar to all who have ever read Roman history: When Porsenna, King of the Etruscans, was besieging Rome, a noble youth named C Marcius entered the Etrus can camp in disguise in order to kill Porsenna. He was captured, and when led before the king, to show his contempt of pain and death, he held his right hand in the fire until it was burned away. In this way, he got the name of Scaevola, or the Left-handed.

MORE: Genealogy: Surnames from personal & mental qualities (1842)

One of the commonest, as well as one of the oldest kinds of names used today as a surname is a patronymic that is a new name made up of the father’s first name with prefix or suffix meaning “son.” As early as Bible times, there is this addition for the sake of greater definiteness, in the case of “Joshua, the son of the Nun.”

The Greeks of the earliest literary period used the same system. Homer name to the patronymic, meaning “son of Peleus,” but the part meaning “son of” speaks of Achilles Pelides. The last is put at the end, just like the name Johnson, John’s son. The English patronymics of this kind are innumerable and form one of the largest classes of last names today.

Their name is legion — Johnson, Robinson, Jackson, Williamson, Robertson, Thompson (for Tom’s son), Peterson and many others. These names are very plain and simple. But there are other patronymics which are not quite so obvious, some of which come from other languages. To the first class belong those names in which the word “son” is omitted altogether.


Researching genealogy: The new rise of interest in ancestors (1923)


When the ancient Greeks spoke of “Xenophon of Gryllos,” the word son was naturally thought of and supplied after the article “the,” just as once Jack Williams naturally meant Jack, William’s son, but the word son, being so obvious, was often dropped.

This gave rise to new last name alongside of the older and fuller one. So there are Roberts and Robertson, Williams and Williamson, Johnson and Johns. This last name does not look familiar, but change it to the oft-heard Jones, and it becomes plain at once why there are so many people of that name. John being the commonest Christian name, makes the commonest patronymic, Jones. So Willis and Harris are for Willie’s (son) and Harrie’s (son), the latter co-existing with Harrison.

There is an enormous number of patronymics that few would suspect of being such names like Fitzgerald, McBride, O’Brien and Price. This list includes practically all the Fitzs, all the Mcs and Macs, all the O’s and many common names beginning with P. Fitz is a Norman word, a corruption of fils, son, and is used as a prefix. Roger, fils de Guillaume, became Roger Fitzwilliam, Robert, fils de Simon, is doubtless the old fighting Norman ancestor of Bob Fitzsimmons.

Mac and O are prefixes from the Celtic, meaning respectively “son of” and “descendant of.” McGregor means the son of Gregor, McDowell, the son of Dowell, etc — so with O’Brien, O’Rourke, O’Toole and all the other O’s.

In names like Price, the etymology is somewhat obscured, but the real origin is very evident to the student. Ap was a Welsh prefix, meaning “son of,” but the A was lost, and the P joined onto the following name. Thus David ap-Rhys became David Price, that is David the son of Rhys, Owen ap-Howell became Owen Powell, Even ap-Richard became Evan Pritchard, and so on.

Four unidentified men in front of painted backdrop 1860

Four unidentified men in front of painted backdrop / Hollyland’s [sic] Metropolitan Photograph Gallery, 250 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.

Last names: Descriptions and places

Another large class of surnames comes from personal peculiarities, chiefly the complexion.

It is amusing how many colors are often mustered together in a list of names, and the practice was very common in ancient times. Niger, meaning black, was a common surname among the Romans; William Rufus, the Red King, In English history, is well known. How often in modern society Mr Brown is presented to Mrs White, or Green grasps the hand of Black, or the English Gray meets his German descended friends, Schwarz and Roth. All these names (with the probable exception of Green) came originally from the complexion or color of the hair.

The name Green, however, is typical of another large class of names arising from locality, denoting either the man’s native country or city or the special kind of place in which he lived. Green is probably like Hill, Field, Lea or Lee, Wood or Woods, Forest, Tree, Lake and Rivers. John Green was doubtless originally John o’ the green, and this was shortened to plain John Green. The first James Hill no doubt lived on or near a hill, and was so called to distinguish him from another James who lived in a field and was called James of the field, or Jim Field. Common last names indicating a man’s nationality are English, Irish, Welsh, French and many others.

All surnames were originally nicknames of a certain kind, but the typical nickname as we think of it arose from a sobriquet representing some personal peculiarity or defect. The ancient Romans, in spite of their stern dignity, had their jokes and their nicknames, and the oft-heard school nicknames of “Reddy,” “Skinny,” “Fatty,” “Baldy” and the like find their Roman parallels in Rufus, Macer, Crassus and Calvus, respectively, which later came to be common family names.

Family last names - Crests from history

This same tendency is seen in the middle ages in the nicknames added to certain well-known kings, such as Pepin le Bref, Charles the Bald, and Louis the Child. Today there are many names like these which were once applicable, but are no longer so. Among a few that may be mentioned are Short, Long, Large, Little, Gross, Rich, Poor, Swift, Lightfoot, and many similar ones.

Finally, a very large number of names come from natural objects of everyday life, such as animals, birds, fishes, flowers, fruits, etc.

There are four chief sources for these. In the case of animals, the name of the animal was supposed to represent the qualities of the animal or the name of the natural object was given in allusion to some episode in the bearer’s history, or it was borrowed from the device on the man’s shield, or, at last — and this principle is responsible for a vast number of last names — it was taken from the sign of the tavern or inn that its bearer kept.

One might start a zoo with the names of animals taken from any city directory. There would be found the “Lyon” lying down with the “Lamb,” and the “Wolf” consorting with the “Fox.” Martin, Beaver, Seal, Bear, Kid, Hare and many others roam at large through the pages of the directory.

Many names from natural objects might be cited unnecessarily, however, for one such would represent the class. In fact, it may be said that there is no surname, representing some ordinary natural object, that may not once have been used as an inn sign.

The Encyclopedia of American Last Names


About this story

Source publication: The Minneapolis Journal (Minneapolis, Minn.)

Source publication date: August 10, 1903

Filed under: 1860s, 1900s, Culture & lifestyle, Family & parenting

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