Here’s a new word for us: onomastics. Onomastics is the study of
surnames, their spelling and meaning. Some Chinese surnames are thousands
of years old as surnames are found in that culture about 2852 BC. In
China, the surname is placed first, then a generation name and then the
given name last.
The Romans had
only one name originally. Later they used three names: the given name
first, followed by the clan designation and lastly, the family name.
added a fourth name commemorating a remarkable action or event. When the
Roman Empire declined, single names were again customary as family names
Middle Ages, a single given name was used. Gradually, another name was
added, which did not apply to families or to heritage.
hereditary use of surnames originated among the Venetian aristocracy in
Italy somewhere between 900 – 1000 AD. The Crusaders soon spread this
custom throughout Europe as they traveled home from the Holy Land.
The passing on
of a surname soon became a matter of pride.
necessary as activities of government expanded from taxation, exaction of
military service, etc., to identify individuals accurately. There were
just too many people for personal names to distinguish people for
administrative and social purposes.
By about 1450,
most people had fixed hereditary surnames. This surname identified the
family, was a link to the past and preserved the family’s identity in the
It was a
matter of family pride to keep surnames. Having no male descendants to
pass on the surname was a cause of regret.
first used by wealthy landowners and nobility. Later they were used by
commoners and merchants, working and middle classes seeking status.
meaning changed or were lost over the years. Some names were spelled
according to the way the name sounded.
location, father’s name and characteristics determined surnames.
Occupational surnames could be Cook, Carpenter, Miller, Taylor, etc.
Location names were names such as Meadows, Brook, Overhill, …and names
ending in ham, wick, stead, wood, bury, etc.
or father’s name, usually ended in son, sen, poulos…or had prefixes such
as Mac and Fitz (both meaning “son of.”)
You might find
characteristics surnames such as Short, Small, Little, Long, Smart,
Longfellow, Armstrong, etc.
surnames to become hereditary were thought to be locational. Occupational
surnames came later and those of the father’s name came last.
names could be uncomplimentary with names such as Stout (meaning “fat
fellow,”) or Cruickshanks or Straddling – meaning bowed legs, etc.
have more than one meaning or origin. For example, the name “Bell” could
mean bellringer or beautiful one.
Do you know
the origins of your own family names? Clues can be found to aid in our
genealogy by understanding onomastics!
We are so
fortunate to have, in Moultrie, The Ellen Payne Genealogy Library.
Researchers travel from all over the United States – and beyond – to
unravel their own family mysteries right here. You’re invited to come and
work on your own family history at The Odom Library.
If you are
interested in genealogy, be sure and subscribe to our publication, The
Family Tree. Amazingly, it is the largest genealogical publication in the
world – and, at the same time, the largest Scottish publication in the
world outside Scotland!
Just come by
the library and ask to be put on the mailing list. There’s no charge,
although we surely do appreciate postage contributions!