Surnames - Their Origins
Author: Robert W. Penry @ 2021
Surnames can be a genealogist’s nightmare. Why?
At one time surnames did not exist. A person had just a first name. To differentiate him/her from others with the same name, a description was often added either in conversation or in writing.
This description often identified the individual’s father. Words such as son, or ap or fitz could be added. Examples:
John fitz Simon (John the son of Simon) – French
John ap David (John the son of David) – Welsh
Bronwen verch Morgan (Bronwen, the daughter of Morgan) – Welsh
Hans Johnanson (Hans the son of Johan) – Scandinavian
Lars Petersen (Lars the son of Peter) – Scandinavian
Jacob ben Amos (Jacob son of Amos) – Jewish
Sergey Alexander Romanov (Sergey son of Alexander)
Olga Alexanderovna Romanov (Russian daughter of Alexander)
Romanov is the surname for the two Russians above.
Many times, the individual was identified by where they lived. Examples:
Stephen de Bohun (Stephen from the town of Bohun)
Paul ‘dApollia (Paul from Province of Apollia)
William du France (William from France)
Dibsdale (Dib of the Dale or Dib’s dale)
Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eleanor from Country of Aquitaine)
Charles IV HRE (Charles IV of the Holy Roman Empire)
Sometimes the individual was identified by occupation or physical characteristic. Examples:
John Wright (John the wheelwright)
Joseph Smith (Joe the blacksmith)
David Death (David the Undertaker)
Iwan Vaughn (Iwan the Whtie)
Ivor Fawr (Ivor the Large)
At other times, a family name was attached to identify a person from an interrelated family. Examples:
John Douglas (John member of the Douglas Clan in Scotland)
Mary Plantagenet (Mary member of the Plantagenet dynasty)
Philip Capet (Philip member of the Capet or Capetian dynasty)
One special way of defining a surname is from a patronymic. A patronymic is when a individual’s father becomes part of the name. In Scandinavian countries. if Olaf was the son of Peter, he was called Olaf Peterson. Then if Olaf has a child named Bjorn, he would be called Bjorn Olafson. When surnames were eventually adopted, whatever the patronymic was at that time became a permanent surname.
Russians had two names, a surname and a patronymic. Example: Vladmir Lenin (this was his surname) His patronymic was Vladmir Ilyich Ulyanov.
Wales also used patronymics until the reign of Elizabeth I who made the Welsh adopt surnames for taxation. The Welsh word for son is ap or ab. Ap if the name begins with a consonant, ab if a vowel. Examples. William ap John, Samuel ab Owen. To make surnames, the P or B in the patronymic replaced the first letter of the father’s name. So Richard became Pritchard, Henry became Penry, Owen became Bowen. Welsh surnames derived from the patronymic are easy to spot. Penry, Price, Powell, Bevan, Brice, etc. There are about 39 of these. Some names didn’t convert. ap John didn’t become Pohn, Rees didn’t become Pees. John became Jones or Johns. Rees stayed the same. Ewen did not become Bwen. And some like William just became Williams.
Eventually many of these descriptions became surnames. The genealogist’s problem is determining when this occurred. Should the name be listed as a surname or as a suffix? Is John Douglas in the year 1584 a surname or is it still just identifying his clan? In the year 1605 is John FizSiimmons actually a surname?
Is there an easy way to determine? Unfortunately, no. The most accurate way is by identifying source documents that list the individual in such a way as to indicate that either a government or religious institution now recognizes the surname.
Definition of Clan: A group of close-knit and interrelated families (especially associated with families in the Scottish Highlands).
Definition of Dynasty in Medieval Europe: A line of hereditary rulers of a country.
Definition of Dynasty Today: A succession of people from the same family who play a prominent role in business, politics, or even entertainment.