Surname History

The History of Your Surname

Surnames are important to us. We are admonished, as children, to "remember who you are" and not to disgrace our family's name. If you are blessed with an unusual surname, you instinctively know that, should you get into trouble, everyone is likely to know who your parents are. And those same people spell their surname as a matter of course after pronouncing it. Women tend to think of the combination of a number of surnames with her given name when contemplating marriage. When a baby is born, given names are carefully weighed in relationship to the child's surname. Even acronyms need to be considered. When we embark on the search for our family history, it is our own surname that we tend to follow first.

There are other reasons besides pride that makes us want to find the history of our surname first. It is much easier to follow the surname of a man, which seldom changes entirely, than that of a woman, who changes her surname with each marriage. In fact, some so-called family histories have been written in which the only surname followed is that of the males. Or perhaps we have the same surname as a famous person in history and want to connect to the same lineage.

Because the surnames of women can change, we should always refer to females by their maiden name, or the name they were given at birth or christening. The only exception to this is when a child is adopted, but then this holds true for male children as well.

Some surnames reflect the history of that name. For instance, Cooper, Baker and Carpenter are all occupations and your ancestor may have belonged to the respective trade. Some names originate with a particular place or geographic area. Surnames such as Brooks, Oaks and Church are examples of this. More common are names that denote familial relationship, and generally originate in the Scandinavian countries. These include names like Anderson, Larsen and Johnson. Yet other surnames indicate an alliance with clans. While there may not be a Scottish clan with your specific surname, your family may still have owed allegiance to a clan chieftain with a different surname and you would be entitled to wear the clan tartan.

A problem that some come up against during their search for their family surname is the fact that their surname was changed at some point. Sometimes an ancestor changed his name to disguise himself after a misdeed. Sometimes it was changed to sound more American after immigrating. Sometimes it was simply translated from one language to another.

Entire books have been written about the history of surnames, how they originated, when they became popular and the reasons for them. Today there are numerous web sites leading you to the history of surnames. All you need to do is get on the internet and, using any search engine, type in surname history. You may be able to find localities where your surname is common, the frequency with which people of that particular surname immigrated to the United States, and any other information you are looking for, including the history of your particular surname.

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