Discussing the Development of Surnames w/ Your Child

Have you ever thought of where your name comes from? I’m not talking about your first name, the one your parents chose for you when you were a baby. There are hundreds of books on the market that explain what your first name “means.” Some names are symbolic of flowers or trees, a certain personality trait, a physical trait, a blessing, a saying, etc. Most people are aware that their first name has a “meaning” and often, they know the meaning. I’m wondering if you’ve thought about where your last name comes from.

When humans first began walking on this earth, they typically had one name, such as “Adam” and “Eve.” With so few people in various communities, it was easy to recognize everyone by one name. Even if someone in another community had the same name, this wasn’t an issue since there was not constant contact. After all, it might take days to reach another community and there was no communication through telephones or e-mail. Even the earliest peoples had names and our earliest recorded writings indicate that throughout history, we gradually developed the use of a second name as our communities grew, the population expanded, and contact between communities became easier and more developed (with the development of roads, the invention of paper, etc.)

Here are some ideas to discuss with your children in regards to the development of last names.

Patronymic Names
Patronymic names are names that come from your father or “pater.” MOST names were created this way. Take the name David Johnson. A few hundred years ago, this person would have been called “David, son of John.” It was shortened to “David, John’s son.” Then it was shortened to “David Johnson.” What about “David Johns”? This is simply a more shortened version of the same name.

If you see a name with “son” at the end of it, the name originated from the idea of “the son of…”. Usually, if you have a name with an “s” at the end, it has the same origin. Someone along the way has shortened the “son” to simply “s.” For example, “Williamson” has been changed to “Williams” in many cases. It still has the same origin – “son of William.”

Take Haskins, for example. I knew that Chris’ family was of Norwegian origin. I only recently discovered that the name Haskins actually originated from the first name “Ásketil.” This was a first name that was converted to “Haskin” in English. So where did the “s” come from? Again, take Chris Haskins. This would have originally been, “Chris, son of Ásketil,” which was converted to “Chris, Ásketil’s son” and then eventually converted to English “Chris, Haskin’s son” and then it changed to “Chris Haskins” over time as the “on” was dropped from “son.”

Since patronymic names are common in every culture, we have borrowed many of these from other cultures. I have given one example above from our own family. Think of these names: “Petersen,” (Peter’s son in German), Williamson (William’s son in German), Rodriguez (son of Rodrigo in Spanish), O’Conner (son of Conner in Scottish or Irish), etc. Each language has its own way of expressing patronymic names, but they all have a way. It’s very fascinating!

Descriptive Last Names
There are also large numbers of last names that developed as a result of description. Descriptive last names would include names that describe an occupation (Baker), where the person lives (Hill), characteristics (Short) or even a personality trait (Doolittle).

Smith is one of the most common names for a reason. When people began to assign surnames as populations grew, around the 15th century, almost every community – whether large or small – had a blacksmith, often known as the “smith,” “smithy,” “smither,” etc. All these names originated from the same occupation of blacksmith. As communities grew and became more complex, the names Baker, Carpenter, Miller, Cook and Taylor began to appear.

Sometimes we see names that like “Brewer” and we know this originated from the town brewer. When we see a name such as “Brauer,” however, many people might not realize that this is the SAME name, simply in a different language. Most cultures have last names that equate to the most common English names because those were the occupations and even the descriptions that were the most popular.

What about if there was more than one blacksmith in a town? That’s where we developed such names as “Goodsmith” (the blacksmith who is a good man).

Names that developed as a result of where people live are easy to figure out. If your name is “Field,” “Feld,” or “Fieldman,” this originated from someone who lived near a pasture or open country. If your last name is Lake, you can use the same reasoning.

It was very common in Europe to name families after the family where the fathers were from. Thus, you have names such as “Berlin” or “Moscow.”

What about names such as “Black,” “Longfellow,” or “Lytle.” These people would be (in order) dark-skinned, tall, and short. Names such as this are based on obvious physical characteristics. Some are a little more difficult. Take the name “Redd.” This would have referred to an ancestor with red hair. If this was a unique trait to the community, it would have been an easy way to identify someone.

There are other characteristic names based more on personality. The name “Fox,” for example, would have been assigned to someone who was “sly as a fox.” Others might have been given names that mean “handsome,” “strong,” or “brave” in their language, which have come down to English with foreign names.

Additional Thoughts
Some religious names are taken from our ancestors’ occupations or their heritage. Take Levi, Bishop, Priest, or Abbot as examples.

Some names are more difficult to figure out simply because we don’t know the meaning of the words any more. Cooper, for example, is a common English surname, but many people today do not realize that the word “cooper” means “one who makes barrels.” In medieval society, this was an important occupation.
While many freemen began to take surnames around the 15th or 16th century and those have been passed down through the generations, some cultures didn’t begin to take surnames until later. Africans who were brought to the states and Europe as slaves, for example, lived in a culture where they still used first names or the patronymic names such as “Kamili, son of Ebo” (of course it wouldn’t be said that way in the African language, but this is for your understanding. The two names I’ve given are real, however. “Kamili” means “perfection” and “Ebo” means “born on Tuesday.”) As slaves began to integrate into American society, they began to take on surnames that were usually affiliated with their owners. A slave that belonged to “Davis” took the last name “Davis.” Some slaves or former slaves took on descriptive names such as “Black” or “Brown,” based on their color. Other slaves choose their own name, such as “Booker T. Washington,” who named himself after our nation’s first president. For many descendants of slaves, it is difficult to trace their roots due to the lack of surnames. Some descendants, however, have wonderful oral histories that have given them clues to their background.

There are exceptions to the above “rules.” In our culture in particular, you have many names that developed from other languages so the name might have one of several meanings. Take the name “Bell,” for example. This last name could mean “the one who rings the bell in the tower,” “the one who lives beside the bell tower,” “one who makes bells,” or it could even originate from the French, “belle,” which means beautiful.

Another example is the last name “Moreland.” In our language, we might assume that “Moreland” means a person who had more land than other people in the community. The word “more” in English developed from the Anglo-Saxon word “moor,” which was an open, frequently grassy, sometimes wet area of soil that is usually uncultivated. The surname “Moreland” literally means “dweller by the moor-land.”

Discussion Questions

Here are some things to review with your students.

1. If last names were largely created based on occupations, why do we not see last names like “Electrician,” “Podiatrist,” or “Cashier”? These occupations didn’t exist during the centuries when we were developing last names.
2. Why do you think “Smith,” “Farmer,” and “Carter” are common names? (“Carter” means “one who drives “carts.”) These names are all related to work that would have been necessary in every community.
3. Look up the definition of “patronymic.” This is a terrific vocabulary word! Make sure students can spell it, say it, and know what it means.
4. Research the origin of your own surname and discuss this with your family.
5. If you didn’t already have a surname, what would be some names others might assign to your family?

For example, in my family, my son Micah, might be known as:
Micah, son of Chris… Micah, Chris’s son… Micah Chrisson
Micah, son of writer…. Micah, son of author….. Micah, author’s son…. Micah, Authorson

Christopher has the same name as Chris so it would be odd to call him “Chris, Chris’ son.”

He might be known as:
Christopher, the tall one… Christopher Tallone… Christopher Tall
Christopher, the tall fellow… Christopher TallFellow
Christopher, the darker skinned child… Christopher the darker… Christopher Dark

Here are some more ideas:
Daniel, from the homeschool family in Gray … Daniel in Gray… Daniel Gray
Hannah, the youngest child… Hannah, the youngest… Hannah Young

The point here is to see the development of the names. Help your children think of names that would work for your family based on these same ideas.


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