Thursday, August 7, 2014


Today every Tom, Dick and Harry has a last name, but that wasn’t always so.  I doubt that our ancestors were named Fred and Barney, but until they started to sort themselves out and create a hierarchy, I’d surmise that everyone needed only one name.  For millennia, rural people were so far out of town that they knew everyone in the area.  It was when they congregated in cities that they had to tack identifiers on to their simple names.

Once folks realized there were others around with their name they began to tack on the name of town they were from.  Thus we have George Washington, whose forebears were from Washington in England, or James Galway, from Ireland. In English we don’t use the ‘from’, but among others, the German Von, the French or Spanish De, or the Italian Da, mean ‘from’. Think of Von Richtofen or DaVinci. 

Meanwhile, back at home, the population was growing.  Tom wasn’t the only Tom in town, so in many places he became Tom Johnson, the son of John.  In Arab countries a son was ibn-, in Hebrew he was ben-, they’re almost the same. In Gaelic, Mac or Mc means son, and O’ means grandson. Could a Scots-Irish lad be O’MacDonald?  In the Scandinavian countries a son was -son sometimes -sen. Erik the Red was Erik Thorvaldsson. A daughter was -dóttir or -datter. This is still used in Iceland, where Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the world’s first democratically elected female head of state.

In other instances, instead of being a son of someone, folks added their profession to their given name. They became Tom Baker, Margaret Thatcher, Maurice Chevalier, or Robert Allen Zimmermann. One ‘n’ or two, a zimmermann is a carpenter, but we know this one as a singer: Bob Dylan. They might have had a characteristic that distinguished them: if they were redheads they might be Russo in Italy or Rousseau in France. If they lived by a lake or pond they became Veronica Lake or James Pond. If their father worked for a bishop, abbot, or priest, or if their father was one, they might use that as their surname.  Is that how that comic became Joey Bishop?  Nah, his last name was Gottlieb, which is German for God’s love, and that might have begun as a nick name.  

In 1979, the United Nations adopted a measure that states, among other things, that there should be equal rights in the transmission of family names. Parents can decide to give their children either the name of the father or mother, or a hyphenation of both – although no more than two names can be hyphenated. I wonder what happens when a Smith-Wong marries a Patel-Jones. Though in one form and one place or another this has been going on for a long time, many couples are now deciding on the wife keeping her own name and their children having a combined surname.  When James Pope marries Anne Sicola, their children’s surname will be Pope-Sicola.

So, surnames came from relationships, towns, locations, occupations, even nicknames. There are many whose origins remain a mystery. It’s said that the name Ryan can’t be traced, but that’s the luck o’ the Irish for you. Surname is from the Old French ‘sur’, meaning ‘super’ or ‘on’ or ‘on top of,’ and ‘nom’, meaning name. We’ve just skimmed the surface of surnames.  Names from our western European heritage, once so prevalent in the States, have been joined by a United Nations of names, and their origins are interesting and very intriguing.

This post is from May 2011. I was thinking about it again because I was marveling at the mixture of names and heritages for my three youngest granddaughters.  Their last name is Scottish, but decorating their family tree they will also find the flags of Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, and Poland.(With the Stars and Stripes on the top of the tree.) I think this mix of backgrounds is wonderful – I hope that they’ll appreciate it and want to learn more about it as they get older.

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