The development of surnames occurred in the Middle Ages in most of the world. Some places had them slightly earlier, and noble and royal families often had them centuries earlier. Even in ancient times, people were often known by a first name, and then with some other designating name to distinguish them from other people in the community. Distinguishing names included things like physical descriptions of a person, the name of their father or mother, the name of a famous relative or ancestor, their occupation, the area of the community they lived in, or some other identifying feature. However, surnames, as we known them, did not come into common use among the regular people of the world until the Middle Ages in most places.
Your American surname, though it may sound totally American now, has its origins far back in history. In fact, your American surname may be a common surname in another country, just with a slightly different spelling. It was not uncommon for immigrants to the United States in the mid-1800’s to mid-1900s to “Americanize” their surnames upon arrival in this country, to fit in better with their new community. They would give an Anglicized spelling of their surname to the clerks who entered their names at arrival ports, and this spelling became the name they and subsequent generations of their family used. You may be using one such spelling with your own surname without knowing it.
If your ancestor came from a nation that did not use a Latin alphabet, as English does, then their name would have to be translated into English spelling upon their arrival in the United States. If they wanted to make their name sound more American, they might adjust the new, Latin spelling of their name at the port of entry, usually with the help of translators. There may be people with your same surname in other nations without Latin alphabets, but using pronunciations of your name that are very different to the one you use.
There are various surname study groups devoted to learning the origins and various spellings of surnames with a common origin. You can look up your surname on Google and see if there is a group devoted to studying it, or if your surname is a sub-surname in a group studying the main surname from which yours is derived. While studying your surname won’t tell you who your exact ancestors were, it can provide you an important clue in where to search for them before they came to America.
Looking at the endings of surnames in America, regardless of their spelling, will often give you a clue as to where the name, and thus, your ancestors, originated. Some examples include:
- Surnames ending in brook, ley, ton, ford, ham, and field are usually English in origin, typically coming from the names of English villages.
- Surnames ending in thal, wald, stadt, berg, stein, dorf, baum, bach, heim, and reut are common among German surnames, and also represent villages where your ancestors may have lived when surnames came to their area.
- Surnames ending in van, vanden, and vander are Dutch surnames, also indicating locality, but only “at” some place. You will have to look at the rest of the surname to determine the name’s area or village of origin.
- Surnames ending in son can be English, Scottish, or Swedish. When the ending is changed to sen, the surname is usually of Danish or Norwegian origin. Both endings indicate the person who originated the surname is the “son of” someone (usually revealed by the rest of the surname).
- Surnames ending in Mac or Mc are both Irish and Scottish, and those that begin with O’ are Irish. All indicate the “son of” someone.
- Other surnames that indicate the “son of” someone are: ian (Armenian), nen (Finnish), ez or es (Spanish), es and az (Portuguese), ovich (Russian), wicz (Polish), escu (Romanian), enko (Ukranian), oglu (Turkish), ibn and ben (Arabian), and s (Welsh).
- Surnames ending in ov, in, or ev are usually Russian and indicate someone’s occupation.
- Polish occupation-based surnames end in ski, and Portuguese occupation surnames end in eira.
- English occupational surnames are usually evident to English speakers, as the surname will be the same as the name of the occupation.
Other surnames may have more obscure origins, but you can still identify their country of origin by some of their letterings. The more common of these include:
- Swedish–blad, blom, dahl, ek, sjo, strand, strom, kvist, lund, lof, lind, holm, and gren
- French–La, Le, Du, eau, el, iau, on, and ot
- Italian–uzzo, ucci, ucco, ello, illo, etti
- Arabian–Al or El
- Greek–is and os
Sometimes, the meanings of surnames have changed over time. Whether your surname is of obvious English origin or a different language, you shouldn’t assume you know what it means without doing further research (unless it is a “son of”) surname. Do some research into the word and see if it had an original meaning that is different from the one it has today. If it used to mean something different, this will tell you a lot about your ancient paternal ancestors and who they were when they adopted surnames.
The best way to begin looking for the origin of your American surname is to trace your paternal genealogy back to the original immigrant ancestor. Determine if they changed their name when they came to this country, or if they kept the original. If they did change it, look at passenger records to discover the original, as passenger records at the point of origin always recorded the original surname. Do research into the spelling of the name itself to determine if it indicates a place, and occupation, a relationship, or a personal characteristic or quality. Then, research the name some more to determine if it had a different original meaning than the meaning assigned to it today.
Learning the origin of your American surname is a fascinating genealogical project that can tell you a lot about the first among your paternal ancestors to use surnames. You can also apply surname research to other surnames in your family tree to find out about the earliest of your ancestors on those lines of your family. By learning the origin of the name and the people who first used it, you may be able to locate records that will either lead you forward in time to your present family or backward in time to those original ancestors. Having the documentation to back up the origin of a surname is a genealogical triumph and one which should be a goal of every genealogist.