What’s in a Surname?
July 22, 2014
Recently, while searching for the meanings of my family’s surnames, I came across some interesting information on the origin of names. I always knew some surnames were derived from occupations, like Smith, Mason, Shoemaker, Miller, Farmer, etc., but I didn’t realize so many were also derived from nicknames and geographical locations. Classifying surnames and figuring out their origins has long been an interest of historians and genealogists. Today, we have the additional component of DNA research to help us hone in on the locations of groups bearing similar names.
If we can study the origin of our family names, eventually, we can determine how groups spread out and migrated. We will also benefit from learning about the history of a given area. Many surnames developed after written language started to become more popular because people wanted to make sure their property was legally bequeathed. An additional surname also became the vogue as populations grew and necessitated the differentiation between individuals bearing the same given name.
One of my family’s names, Cotton, could have several meanings, like “Dweller at the Cottages” or could refer to a nickname or trade name from the fabric. I also discovered it is typically an English name, and I found many variations of it. Surnames change radically when groups travel to other countries, and different cultures will have their traditions for creating surnames. It is fascinating to see how names have developed!
The Midwest Genealogy Center has many books on the subject of surnames: Surnames, DNA, & Family History by George Redmonds, Turi King, and David Hey; Surnames of the United Kingdom by Henry Harrison; Irish Family Names Map, Welsh Surnames; and many more. Some of MGC’s books on the subject are indexes with brief descriptions of general origin and meaning, while other books go into the detailed history of a country or village. With the addition of modern DNA research, we can determine if a surname has many progenitors or one distinct origin. Each name has a unique history and something interesting to teach us!
Midwest Genealogy Center