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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Names and More Names
by Rhonda R. McClure

September 30, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

As genealogists, we seem to swim in names. We are always looking for surnames and then of course it is the given names that help us to know if we have the correct family. And yet surnames were not always used. In the early days, it was the Romans who first used a family name or cognomina. Even though the Romans occupied Britain, it was not until the Middle Ages that Britain had anything to do with what we would come to call surnames. The additional name given in Britain was to help distinguish one Mary from another.

Surnames have been derived from a variety of methods. While some stem from the identification as being the son of someone, others have originated from an individuals occupation. Still others were created from the place in which the individual lived. Still other surnames have been derived from nicknames.

Surnames have been created by many different systems.

After Your Father

Patronymics is the method where an individual's last name identifies them as the son or daughter of a given individual. One of the benefits to this is that you already know the first name for the father you are searching for. However, many people find the constant changing of the surname to be hard to follow. Patronymics are often thought to be limited to Scandinavia, where you will see son or datter at the end of a surname. However, patronymics can be found in many other cultures as well, including:

  • Jewish - the use of ben as in David ben Joseph
  • Irish - O', Mc, and Mac
  • French - Fitz after the French word fils (son)
  • Welsh - ap

Of course, very often the patronymics did not continue. While great great grandfather was named for his father in the patronymic style, his children may still carry the same surname.

Occupations and Nicknames

Many individuals have taken their surnames from the occupation of that original ancestor. There are times that you can plainly see the occupation, such as in the surnames of Wainwright, Smith, and Baker.

Other surnames though are not so clear today. We no longer use the same term or rely on the same occupation. For instance the first Clark was a cleric or someone who could write. The first Barker was a tanner. I can't help wondering what some of the surnames would be used today if we were still following this practice. Is there a surname you can derive out of the use of computers?

Still others of our ancestors would end up getting surnames based on nicknames. For instance, if your ancestor was short in stature, it is possible that he was known as David the Short and descendants of this person would then be carrying around the surname of Short, as in David Short.

Place of Origin

Many of our ancestors took their surnames from their locality. Sometimes this was the name of the town or estate where the individual lived. Many times these surnames started out as John of York and then eventual descendants would be known as John York.

Other times the place name referred to something unique about where the individual lived. For instance, if your ancestor lived next to the lake, then he may have been known as John Lake. Other surnames that have derived from such place names include Rivers, Dale and Mills.

In Conclusion

Your name is a part of you. But more importantly it was at one time an identifying aspect of the original individual who took, or was given, the surname. Who was that first blacksmith or tanner? Just how short was John the Short? In many ways the surnames our ancestors have handed down are more than a name, they are part of our legacy.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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