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What's in a Name?
Understanding the Secrets of Surnames Can Unlock Answers About Your Ancestors. Here's How to Keep Up With the Joneses — and How They Got to Be Named Jones (or O'hara or Kovalenko or Santos Or…) in the First Place.
A few years ago, I agreed to help a friend do some family research. Her parents, Jaques Rodrigues and Maria Santos, were from southern Portugal. I thought this was going to be pretty straightforward. But I soon found out that her father's real surname was Sebastian and her mother's was Maria. Yes, Maria Maria. And the further we dug, the more complicated it got. Surnames changed with every generation.

How are you supposed to trace your family's history if the names keep changing? Last names — surnames — are among the most important yet most potentially puzzling clues to your family's past. You think you're researching the genealogy of the Santos family and suddenly you've got Maria Maria. Or you have an ancestor named Sven Andersson and it looks like his son is named Magnus Svensson.

To deal with such challenges and to make the most of the answers surnames suggest, it helps to know and understand the naming practices in the cultures and geographies of your ancestors.

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