Find Out the Origin of Your Surname:

Researching your family tree can be time consuming or costly. A way to short-cut the process is to examine your surname (or your father's surname if you have taken your spouse's name). The surname is like a time-machine that can transport you back thousands of years.

The Chinese have had surnames for nearly three thousand years (their surname comes first, before the personal name). In Europe however, surnames only began to catch on around the time of the middle ages. Surnames have been handed down through generations to the present day. In the U.S., early settlers already had surnames.

In general, there are four categories of names:
Local or topographic: Deriving from where they live or where they come from:
e.g. Churchill
Blair (Scottish/Northern Irish field)
Graham (from Grantham, UK)

e.g. Miller
Schumacher (Shoe-maker)

Nickname: Perhaps based on a personal characteristic
e.g. Long
Freud (Cheerful)

Patronymic: Named after a family member or an iconic or religious person or God
e.g. Johnson (son of John)

If you haven't already guessed (or found out through research) the origin of your own surname, it may be worthwhile trying to work it out. If your name is anything like a first name, such as Roberts, Stevens, Wilson (Will's son) their origins are obvious. The Mac prefix means "son of" and the O prefix means "grandson of". So a law practice called Simpson, MacDonald and O'Reilly would be made up of descendants of Sim's son, Donald's son and Reilly's grandson. Similarly, the suffix "cock" also means son. It was another word for "lad". Thus, Wilcock is "Will's lad".

Perhaps your last name denotes a place. Names such as Essex or Washington speak for themselves. Names such as Woods or Fields are equally obvious. Others are less obvious. Ashcroft, for example, is an enclosure of ash trees.

Your name may be related to an occupation. Names like Tailor and Potter don't take much working out. Others are a little obscure: Bailey, for instance, derives from a court bailiff and Thatcher from a person who constructed thatched roofs.

You could try a personal characteristic. Longfellow and Short speak for themselves. Lang is less obvious - it is a corruption of Long. Brown or Browne may apply to hair colour or skin pigment as would Schwartz.

Many of us - well many of the males in our society - can trace their surnames back a very long way. Females, of course, would need to use their father's name. Not all of us have surnames going back centuries. The majority of slaves that were brought to the U.K. and to the U.S. and other western states were eventually given the surnames of their owners or were adopted into families who gave them their surname. Some have managed to trace their ancestry back to their roots and have decided to change to the names from their ancestral lands.

The meanings and origins of names - and words in general - can be a fascinating subject. Some words can carry a multitude of meanings such as bat or party. Take the word bat: it is an implement for hitting things with - from the French word "Batte" and possibly from Celtic origins. It is also a flying animal, from Scandinavian "Bakke". It is also a verb and has other meanings. For instance, what does the bat mean in the phrase "to bat one's eyelids"??

Another multiple-meaning word is "choke". It is a verb and a noun. It is also short for artichoke. It also happens to be a spare part in a fly killer machine - it regulates the uv bulb power consumption.

The Author: Vernon Stent.

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