In general, the development of surnames and their universal use throughout
the world followed commerce. The countries and parts of countries where
many were engaged in trade were the first to use surnames. Agricultural
districts, where man was tied to the soil to make his living, had a smaller
population where the need for more exact identification was not so pressing,
and were consequently, the last places to acquire universal family names....
American surnames comprise the surnames found in every country throughout
the world, many with differences in spelling not seen in the old country
due to the inability of clerks and government officials to record correctly
the names given them by unschooled immigrants not familiar with the English,
French, German, or Spanish languages currently used in the port of entry
or the part of the country where they settled. When an immigrant arriving
in America with little knowledge of English gave his name verbally to
the officials to whom it sounded odd or unusual, it was written down by
them as they heard it, and being thereby "official," it was often accepted
by the immigrant himself as a correct American rendering of his name.
To say that there are not American names would be wrong; one might on
the contrary affirm that there are no unAmerican surnames. All family
names in the United States can be and should be classified as "American"
But it is not enough to declare that American surnames now embody all
the surnames of all the world. Immigrants to America from European countries
have also consciously altered their names to relate them partially to
the English language, especially as to English pronunciation, so that
many names have a form and spelling, as have been mentioned, which is
different from that found anywhere else. Some familiar examples might
be noted. Dutch VAN ROSEVELT "of the rose field" becomes ROOSEVELT, German
BLUM "flower" becomes BLOOM, GELBFISCH "yellow fish" becomes GOLDWYN,
HUBER "tenant of hide of land" becomes HOOVER, KUNTZ "Conrad" becomes
COONS, ROGGENFELDER "rye field" becomes ROCKEFELLER, PROERSCHING "peach
tree" becomes PERSHING, SCHWAB "from Swabia (freeman)" becomes SWOPE,
THALMANN "valley man" becomes TALLMAN, French GUIZOT "little Guy" becomes
GOSSETT, Swedish SJÖSSTRAND "sea shore" becomes SEASHORE, Irish QUIDDHY
"descendant of CUIDIGHTHIGH (helper)" becomes CUDAHY, Italian TAGLIAFERRO
"iron worker" becomes TOLLIVER, and AMICI "friend" becomes AMECHE. General
CUSTER of "Last Stand" fame had a Hessian soldier grandfather named KÜSTER,
"minor church official in charge of the sacristy." Dutch VANDERPLOEG becomes
VANDERPLOW, Finnish TERHUNEN becomes TERHUNE, and KIRKKOMÄKI becomes CHURCHILL.
The list is endless....
...almost all family names may be classified on the basis of their derivation
in one or more of the four following groups:
- From the Father's Name or other Relationships (Patronymics)
- From Occupation or Office (Occupational Names)
- From Description of Action (Nicknames)
- From Village Names or Landscape Features (Place Names)
In a careful check of seven thousand of the most common surnames in the
United States it was found that the proportions in each class are as follows:
Any particular surname may originate in more than one way in several
ways, in different places and countries, and at different times. Even
the ubiquitous SMITH derives from words designating other than the worker
in metals. SMITH sometimes comes from smethe "smooth" as in Smithfield
"the smooth field" in London. Although no recorded proof has been found,
it cannot be doubted that some with that name had an ancestor living by
the Smite "dirty stream" from Old English smitan "to pollute."
Several others will be here discussed, not to confuse the reader, but
to emphasize the point that oftentimes a family name arose in different
places with different antecedents all coalescing into the same form to
make just one common family name. To add to these confusions, when such
a name arrived in America, there was a powerful tendency to equate an
old, unfamiliar spelling of a word or place name with a more familiar,
easily spelled and pronounced word or name not alien to American-English
Perhaps the most prominent feature of onomastics in America, one emphasized
by H.L. Mencken in his The American Language, is the tendency by
ethnic groups to change the family name to adapt to American ears and
tongues attuned to the English language. The stimulus is especially strong
when surrounded by neighbors of English descent, weaker when they congregate
in cities and districts with little contact with outsiders. Those from
countries with alphabets other than the Latin had to transliterate them
and different systems of transliteration produced many variant names.
Foreign names are assimilated into words and names familiar to speakers
of English. The most usual change of surname was by translation practiced
in some degree by every foreign group....
The principal, albeit overlapping and vague, types of changes of name
favored by immigrants in America, are eight in number. They are:
- By respelling, as when English COCKBOURNE is spelled COBURN, French
NOEL becomes NOWELL, and German ALBRECHT changes to ALBRIGHT.
- By translation, as when Irish BREHONY becomes JUDGE, and German RUEBSAMEN
translates to TURNIPSEED.
- By transliteration, as when a Russian name spelled in the Cyrillic
alphabet is changed to the Latin alphabet, or a Chinese name written
in ideographs is expressed in the alphabet used in America.
- By abbreviation, as when Welsh DAVIES contracts to DAVIS and German
GOLDBERGER shortens to GOLDBERG.
- By extension, as when JOHNSON increases to JOHNSTONE and RUSSEL becomes
- By conversion, as when the German MUELLER changes to MILLER and the
Swedish JONSSON becomes JOHNSON.
- By dropping diacritical marks, as when the Swedish SJÖGREN "sea,
branch" unveils to SJOGREN.
- By substitution, as when SMITH becomes JONES and BLACK becomes FIELDS.
It may be helpful to note a few of the most common elements in American
names which provide hints in recognizing the national antecedents of the
bearer from inspection of his family name. Surnames terminating in -ley,
-ton, -ham, -ford, -field, and -brook
are usually from English village names. Some German locality endings are
-au, -bach, -baum, -berg, -bruck, -dorf,
-heim, -hof, -horst, -reut, -stadt,
-stein, -thal, and -wald. The ending -er is
found in English and German names and the ending -mann (often contracted
to the English -man) connotes a German name; both indicate occupational
names or denote that the original bearer came from the place or town indicated.
Von may be observed in German names hinting at nobility while the
van, vander, and vanden stamp the bearer as Dutch
and merely mean "at" and "at the."
The patronymical terminations are very helpful in assessing the nationality
of the bearer's paternal parent. The ending -son is found in English,
Scottish, Swedish and Norwegian names. When spelled -sen, it is
Danish or Norwegian. The prefix O' indicates an Irish name while
Mac and Mc is either Irish or Scottish. Most Armenian names
terminate in -ian, sometimes changed to -yan. The ending
-nen usually indicates Finnish ancestry. The Spanish patronymical
form is -ez and -es, and the Portuguese form is -es
and -az. Russian -ovich, Polish -wicz, Rumanian -escu,
Ukrainian -enko, and Turkish -oglu are telltale patronymical
elements. Ibn or ben is found in Arabian names. Common masculine
names with the -s ending are often of Welsh derivation....
Most Russian surnames end in -ov, -in, or -ev. If
the ending is -sky, the man is probably Russian; if it is -ski,
he is likely to be of Polish descent. A common Portuguese suffix is -eira.
The Frisian -stra indicates place or location while the ending
-sma is used with occupational names. Common Swedish nature terminations
are -blad, -blom, -dahl, -ek, -gren,
-holm, -lind, -lof, -lund, -kvist,
-sjo, -strand, and -strom. Many Belgian occupations
names are preceded by the definite article De, but the same term
in French names is the preposition "of" or "from." The French also use
the article Le and the preposition or contraction Du. Arabs
employ the definite articles, Al or El. The simple endings
-is and -os often indicate transliterated Greek names. The
diminutives -eau, -el, -iau, -on, -ot
and various combinations of these or double diminutives are frequently
noted in French names. Common Italian diminutive endings are vowels enclosing
double consonants, as -ello, -etti, -illo, -ucco,
-ucci, and -uzzo....
To arrive at the exact derivation or meaning of a surname is not easy.
Many are not what they appear to be. BARKER did not bay like a dog but
devoted his working time to preparing leather from Old English bark
"to tan." POINTER did not direct people where to go by the use of an extended
forefinger, but was one who made laces and cords for fastening hose and
doublet together. USHER did not show people to their theatre seats but
was a doorkeeper, one who kept watch at the door to the king's apartment.
SPITTLE does not mean that; it designates one who dwelt or worked at the
hospital, a place of shelter or entertainment for travelers in the Middle
Ages. But SPEAKER and SPEAKMAN did act as advocates or spokesmen for others.
In contrast to European names, the correct interpretation of English surnames
can be given with greater confidence because of the many early documents
containing them still extant.
...As we attempt to drag the meaning of our surnames from the dark, cloudy
murky past, it must be remembered that many names of diverse origins with
only slightly varied spellings tended to freeze into the usual common,
generally modern, English spellings familiar to most people. Any simple-looking
name with an apparently obvious meaning can thus have become the end result
of the cohesion of a half dozen or more completely different names several
of which are from diverse languages. Ordinary vagaries of spelling and
sound differences found even in adjacent communities are responsible in
Learning about the origins of surnames can be interesting, and also practical.
Now that you know something about the surnames of different nationalities
and how they may have changed over the years, you may be better-equipped
to locate some of your family records. If you can't find older family
records under the current spellings of your family surnames, think about
the likely ways in which those names may have changed, and then look for
records under those spellings. You may be pleasantly surprised.