Friday, October 6, 2017

When Did Your Ancestors First Use a Last Name?

Your family tree research has a long way to go if your oldest generation has last names.

William the Conqueror and his brothers.
It's the The Conqueror family!
(12th century - Lucien Musset's The Bayeux Tapestry
ISBN 9781843831631, Public Domain, Link
Mayflower descendants are thrilled to trace their genealogy back to the early 1600s or beyond. I'm thrilled to have traced my Italian peasant ancestors back to the late 1600s.

But you're in a whole 'nother class of family tree research when you've gotten back to ancestors with no last names.

Last names, or surnames, or cognomi in Italian, didn't exist several centuries ago. Most people couldn't read or write, and they didn't travel far. So formal last names weren't needed.

Chinese last names are one very big exception. Around 2852 B.C. it's believed the Chinese emperor ordered his people to adopt last names. Those last names had to come from a sacred poem of the time. This would explain why most Chinese people to this day have as few as 60 last names among them. [source: www.lifescript.com]

In the medieval days of Europe (picture "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"), last names weren't needed. Once civilizations began collecting taxes from their people, they started recording their names. They needed a way to tell people apart so they knew who to hound for those taxes.

Enter the surname.

There are four basic surname types.

1. Occupational Surnames

Some Western European cultures began using their trade as a last name (Smith, Shoemaker/Schumacher, Wright, Miller).

2. Patronymic (or Matronymic) Surnames

Some cultures used surnames based on male names (Johnson, Ericson, MacDonald) or female names. The form of a surname meaning "son of the father" takes on a different variation in different cultures:
  • Fitzgerald means son of Gerald
  • Ivanovich means son of Ivan
  • DiGiovanni means son of Giovanni
  • Stefanowicz means son of Stefan
3. Topographical Surnames

Some cultures used place names (Palermo, Napoli). Place names might also be a description of a place (Hill, Ford, Glen[n]). The last name Church is common in multiple languages (including L├ęglise, Iglesias). Place names are also why many Polish names end in -ski. Someone from Gryzbow might be named Gryzbowski.

4. Descriptive Surnames

In some cases the noble class of a society imposed an unflattering surname on someone of a lower class. As time went on, the bad meaning of the surname became accepted as a name and not an insult. Descriptive names can be friendly (Young, Good, Brown/Braun/Bruno) or based on an undesirable characteristic (Basso means short, Grosso means fat). A redhead might be called Russo or Rubino.

As early as the 11th century, people decided to pass this assumed surname to their children, making it a family name. [source: http://forebears.io/surnames]

These basic formations of names explain many of the last names in our family trees.

To learn about name variations, plus surname prefixes (Mc, Mac, Del) and suffixes (etti, ella) in various nationalities, see:

I guess the goal is to be Valerie Bertinelli and trace your tree back to William the Conqueror!


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