Origin of Last Names

Essay by ValveousHigh School, 12th gradeA+, May 2004

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Have you ever wondered about the meaning of your last name or where your family came from? What your ancestors did or where they lived? Surnames, our last names, tell a story about our family, one handed down for hundreds of years. By tracing the possible origin of your last name, you can learn more about the medieval ancestors who first bore the last name and, ultimately, handed it down to you. The study of names fascinates me. I occasionally read articles in the newspaper about the most popular children's names these days. Over time, of course, the popular names change. Mary is not as popular today as Megan, and Keith is no longer as popular as Jason. The change in patterns and trends is nothing new; it has been going on for centuries. As we research our families, we may find naming patterns and conventions that can help with our quests.

In this week's "Along Those Lines," let's discuss some of the patterns you might encounter in your genealogical research.

Names are important. They help define an individual's identity, both within the family unit and within the community. Sometimes a person's name has its origin in the family. Sometimes the name has religious significance. The name may also have an ethnic origin or connotation. And in still other cases, a child's name sometimes commemorates someone outside the family, even a public figure. Let's explore each of these instances.

Perhaps the most prevalent name conventions are with regard to family. In some families, in some cultures, and/or in some locales, tradition dictates that children be named for members of past generations. Surnames in some Scandinavian countries are thus indicative of a child's parentage. The Swedish name Carl Johannson, for example, would indicate that Carl is the "son of Johann," while...