Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time. By an extension, the term “etymology (of a word)” means the origin of a particular word.  Etymology is important in genealogical research particularly with surnames due to the numerous spelling variations found.

A surname, often called a last name, is attached to a given name or first name.  During the middle ages, as villages became more crowded and families became larger, one name was not enough to distinguish friends and neighbors from one to another.  Surnames as we know them today began in southern Europe in the 12th century and gradually began to spread northward.  Many of the gentry did not adopt a surname until around the 14th century.  It wasn’t until about the 16th century that surnames became inherited.

Surnames fall broadly into four categories:

1.  Derived from a given name – usually patronymic, or from the father, but can be matronymic, from the mother.  Typically a prefix or a suffix is added to the name to identify “son of” or “daughter of”.    The most common suffix used by English and Scandinavia was son e.g.  Johnson (son of John);  Mac is a Gaelic prefix e.g.  MacDonald (son of Donald); another prefix, Fitz, was Norman.  e.g.  Fitzpatrick (son of Patrick), and a final example is the Irish prefix O.  e.g.  O’Conner (son of Conner).  An example of a matronymic surname would be Beason (son of Bea).

2.  Derived from an occupation – In England it was common for servants to take as a surname the employer’s occupation or their first name and add an “s”.    Examples include Roberts, Vickers, Tailor, and Fletcher.  It was also common for actors to take as a surname roles that they played often.  Examples are King, Duke, Angel, and Lord.

3.   Derived from a location – This is one of the most common ways to differentiate one man from his neighbor.   If a person moved, they were most likely identified by the place that they came from or if they lived by a geographical feature, this might also be a method of identification.  Examples include Churchill, Westwood, Brooks, or Parris.

4.     Derived from a characteristic – These surnames were typically nicknames given based on physical or other characteristics of the first bearer.  Examples would be Strong, Armstrong, Goodman, Young, and Long.

Different cultures have different rules regarding surnames and I will delve into that topic some other time!


  1. Putra says:

    Wow, these are great tips, Nancy! Thanks for sharing! I have the luck of having some surnames that are very uncommon, but that can also make it very hard to find them in all their variations. One example is my Hague surname. I’ve seen it spelled Haag, Haque, Haig, Hauge, Haege, Haeke, Hacke, Houge, Hogue, Hogg, Hoag yeah. So thanks! I’ll use these for sure.

    • Mhal says:

      My family snumare of LeBlanc is just like searching for a Smith. It was the largest family in Acadia and the largest family to come out of Acadia. With 5 sons who gave our progenitors, their parents, 35 grandsons, how could we miss? In the U.S. it is made more complex by the fact that many changed their names to White in order to find work. The Italians did the same with Blanco makes for an interesting search.Lucie

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