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Overheard in GenForum: History of Last Names
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

October 07, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Does anyone know the history of last names? I was talking with someone and I said that Leonardo deVinci actually means Leonardo from Vinci and deVinci wasn't really a "last name" and that they were not used until later to track family lines. Any info? -- Tom

A: In many ways you are correct. Prior to about the 1200s, surnames were not in use. European surnames began to be adopted in Europe in the 13th and 14th century. In many ways surnames are a modern contrivance, assuming that you consider the last 700 or so years to be modern. However, it was the Romans who established family names or cognomina even though they did not catch on during the Roman occupation of England.

Surnames take their origins from many different methods. There are patronymics, clan names, locality names, and names taken from occupations. Even names that appear not to have any connection may in fact, due to different languages, be the same name.

Surnames take their origins from many different methods.


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 the Jewish, Irish, French and Welsh.

Some people find it difficult to research family lines that use patronymics. It certainly is different and does take some getting used to. And positive results in this type of research depends largely on the record availability in the area as well as the record familiarity by the researcher.

Clan Names

The clan and sept names of Ireland and Scotland were a predecessor to the surnames. It was not surprising to see some of the members of these clans taking the name of the clan as their surname. And in some instances patronymics would evolve out of these clan names.

Of course do not assume that all Scottish or Irish surnames can be traced back to clan names. Some of them are true patronymics.


Many of the surnames were developed from the occupation of the first individual to receive the surname. We know that the first BAKER was a baker of some sort. The first COOPER was a barrel maker. These are simply the English equivalents to these professions. Obviously, there were similar professions in France, Germany and Italy. They also carry similar occupational surnames, even if we do not recognize them as such.

However, when these individuals migrated, it is possible that the names were not recorded exactly and as such the name no longer refers back to that original occupation. And even with English surnames, there are some that we perhaps did not realize referred to occupations as well. Some of these include: Barker (tanner), Clarke (cleric) and Franklin (town official).

Finding Out More

There have been a number of books written on the subject of notes. There are surname dictionaries, that allow you to look up a given surname, and learn its origins and when it was first used and in some cases, where it was first used.

There are dictionaries for surnames from England, Ireland, Germany, and many other countries and ethnic groups. You can find many of these books in your local library. Two excellent ones are:

  • Ashley, Leonard R.N. What's in a Name?. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., 1989.
  • Hanks, Patrick and Flavia Hodges. A Dictionary of Surnames. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

In Conclusion

No one knows for sure when the various countries began using surnames, though it has been determined that in the 11th century people did not use surnames and by the 15th century they did.

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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