What’s in a name? When you work in the field of probate genealogy some names can make life a little more difficult when you are tracing the rightful heirs to an estate.
Take Smith for example. If a person has died intestate and is called Smith, the search for heirs is obviously a little more tricky because Smith is such a common surname. In the US, for example some 2,803,600 people have the surname Smith and statistically it is the most common surname. It is also the most common surname in the UK (some 729,860 people) and Australia.
So why is this name so common in these countries? Surnames date back to Medieval times in the main, when populations started to expand and they were used as a way to distinguish the people in a town or city. If there were two Johns, for example, one might be John John’s son – which would have eventually become Johnson, and one would be John Blacksmith, eventually becoming Smith.
Thatcher, Baker et Al
Occupation surnames include Thatcher, Baker, Archer, Fisher, Carter, Falconer and Gardiner.
The “son of” distinction takes different forms as well. In Scotland, James MacArthur/McArthur comes from son of Arthur, whilst in Poland names ending in “ski” mean the same thing, and Irish names using either O’ or “Fitz” at the beginning mean “son of” too, as Fitz comes from the Latin word “filius”, son of.
The Fitz prefix though, was also used to denote the illegitimate children of Royalty – so Fitzwilliam and Fitzhenry could all signify Royal parentage. The most famous “Fitz” was probably Henry Fitzroy, 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII and his mistress Elizabeth Blount, the only illegitimate child Henry acknowledged.
Appearance and Names
Physical descriptions also played a part in surnames – take Young or Strong for example, or Armstrong (the Medieval man you didn’t want to try arm-wrestling with). This also applies to colours, such as Brown, Green and Grey. Those are the obvious ones, but names such as Cameron mean “crooked nose”, as this comes from the Gaelic cam “crooked” and sròn “nose”.
There are also surnames which denote places, such as Blair from the Gaelic blár, which means “plain, field or battlefield”.
So far, we have discussed mainly British names and their origins, but different countries and cultures had different ways of naming people. Spanish names, for instance, mainly use compound surnames – or a surname of more than one word. This is usually a first surname that is the father’s name, and a second one that is the mother’s – but only the father’s surname would be passed on to the next generation.
Compound surnames are also a feature of British names – such as Helena Bonham Carter and Iain Duncan Smith; sometimes these names are hyphenated and sometimes not.
Japanese surnames often come from geographical features – such as Ishikawa “stone river”, or Yamamoto “the base of the mountain”, and in China is is thought that 85% of China’s population shares 100 surnames – including the popular Wang, Zhang and Li.
American surnames are interesting because many of them are corruptions of European surnames – many families emigrating to the states took on Anglicised-sounding surnames so that they could fit in, such as changing Johansson to Johnson, or Müller to Miller.
There is no doubt that surnames are an absolutely fascinating subject – and we could go into a lot more depth on name origins that we have here. What are the origins of your surname? We’d love to know and please feel free to tell us on our Facebook page.