By S. Marie Webster
All your life you have been identified and classified by your last name. It may interest you to know however, that the name you were given at birth may not have been the name that you ancestors carried.
Family names, or surnames did not come into use until around the Middle Ages. Their origins can be divided into four main categories.
Patronymic surnames were derived from the father's name. This practice was widely used, especially in the Scandinavian countries. Occasionally the mother's name was also used making it a matronymic surname. Adding either a prefix or suffix denoting 'son of' or 'daughter of' to the father or mother's name formed these names. An example would be Peterson for the son of Peter.
Geographic or local names were also used and were derived from an individual's place of residence or the town or country from which he originally came. Some of the earliest surnames in France came from local names and were introduced into England by Norman nobility, who used names based on their ancestral estates. Certain surnames can be traced back to the town or city of their origin, while others have been lost. The name Brooks meant the individual lived near a brook, but does not identify its location. Compass directions were also commonly used for surnames in the Middle Ages forming names such as Eastman and Westwood.
The third category of surnames derived from a physical characteristic or nickname of the original bearer, and makes up about 10 percent of all family names. A tall, thin man might take the last name Long. A man with dark hair might be named Black.
The fourth category developed from the occupation or craft that the first bearer pursued. Miller came from someone who ground flour for a living. Taylor derived from someone who made or repaired garments. The country of origin was also important in this category. For example in German, Miller is Muller.
Unfortunately it is very common for different branches of the same family tree to carry different surnames with a variety of spellings. When you are researching the origin of your family name it is important to work backwards through the generations to determine the original family name.
Also remember that spellings and pronunciations have changed many times over the years. A clerk may have misspelled the name at one time, or a new immigrant may have purposely altered the spelling to fit into his new country more easily. Many German-Americans changed their names after World War I, along with many Jews who also feared discrimination.
Once you have determined the original spelling of your family name there are many online databases and books available that will provide further information on the meaning and origin. While many online databases charge a fee for this information, it is possible to find reliable sites that do not. One such site is surnames.behindthename.com. Another good site for this, as well as other genealogy subjects is Cyndi's List at cyndislist.com. Cyndi also offers a printed manual that is available on Amazon.com, search under Cyndi's List for the most current edition.
Discovering the origins or etymology of your last name, also known of as your surname or family name, may be just the beginning of an exciting new hobby. Genealogy is the process of tracing family pedigrees. It involves collecting the names of relatives, living and deceased, and documenting their relationship to form what is called a 'family tree'.
The advent of the Internet has made this process much easier than it used to be. Many census records and old newspapers are available online. This cuts down on travel costs when you are doing your research. Many county historical societies also have a web presence, some even offer to search records for a fee or donation, while others are free. Public libraries are also a valuable source of information.
Another goldmine of information is the personal homepages of others who are searching for their own relatives. Many vehement amateur genealogists diligently post ever scrap of information they come across relating to their finds. This allows others to contact them and the branches of the 'family tree' to grow. You may find relatives you never knew existed, but be careful, your tree may have a few nuts too!:0