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How to Research What Your Last Name Means

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

Written by Nancy Hendrickson, unless otherwise noted

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1. Understand surname origins and naming conventions and traditions
Online surname origin finders
Books
2. Ask relatives
3. Study family trees and profiles with the same name
4. List surname variations and misspellings
5. Look into DNA surname studies
6. Join a society or one-name study
7. Visit specific surname websites
8. Network on forums and lists
Related Reads

Surnames are among the most important clues to your family’s past. From patronymics to place names, let us help you discover where your last name came from.

I’ve often wondered what it would’ve been like to do genealogy in the days before surnames. It’s hard to imagine living in a town so small that everyone knew who “short Herbert” was. Genealogy would’ve been a sticky wicket—who knows how many diminutive guys named Herb lived in the same area? And how would you be able to tell whether “knobby-kneed Norman” or “rotund Robert” was his father?

Use this free form designed to keep track of surnames you’re researching, as well as their variant forms and spellings.

Despite their importance to genealogy, surnames didn’t come along until fairly recently. And we genealogists are glad our families finally adopted these identifiers—they make sorting out the Herberts and Normans and Roberts much easier. But surnames’ value to family historians doesn’t stop there. You can open the door to even more genealogical finds by using these strategies for learning what your last name means.

1. Understand surname origins and naming conventions and traditions

Learning your surname’s meaning is fascinating and might even point you to an ancestral homeland. Last names came about gradually as populations grew to the point a single name was no longer a sufficient identifier.

Some commons origins of surnames include:

  • occupations (such as “Smith,” for a blacksmith)
  • physical characteristics (such as “Short”)
  • places or landmarks (such as “Hill”)
  • patronymics, or father’s name (such as “Johnson,” son of John)

Of these four naming conventions, patronymics probably can most trip you up, since its forms change with the language and culture.

Specific ethnic groups often had their own naming conventions. In Russia, -vich is a common suffix, as in Ivan Nikolayevich (Ivan, son of Nikolay). In Nordic countries, -son or -sen indicates “son of.” The suffix -dotter, -dottir or -datter means “daughter of.” Gaelic patronymic surnames start with Mc, Mac, O or Fitz. (There’s no factual basis to the belief Mac is Scottish and Mc is Irish — Mc is just an abbreviation of Mac.)

Some families have been in America so long, modern members don’t have a clue where the name came from. How to unravel the tangle? In some cases, as with Cooper, Wright, Brook, MacKenzie and O’Connor, we can guess the meanings. For others, such as Samora, Deeming and Winton, the waters are muddier.

Online surname origin finders

Ancestry

How do you find out where your surnames came from? Online, you can use Ancestry.com’s last name meaning search, whether or not you subscribe to the site’s databases. Enter your surname to learn the name’s origin and meaning, plus its prevalence in the United States, England and Canada. You’ll also find quick links to researching that surname in key Ancestry.com record collections.

FamilySearch

FamilySearch has a somewhat similar surname tool. And under Activities > All About Me, you (if you have a profile) can view how many people share your name, plus origins and meanings for both your given name and surname.

Books

If you’re more of a bookworm than a web surfer, check out the Oxford University Press Dictionary of American Family Names by Patrick Hanks. That’s how I found out about the name Winton, a “Scottish and English: habitational name from any of various places called Winton.” The dictionary goes on to describe how several of those places got their name: “Those near Edinburgh and in North Yorkshire are named from the Old English byname or personal name Wine (meaning ‘friend’) + Old English tun ‘enclosure,’ ‘settlement’.”

Keep in mind your ancestors may have changed their name or altered its spelling from the original. I would’ve sworn my Shore family was from Britain, but I discovered through research they adopted Shore based on their Swiss Schorr surname. (Read more about name variants in strategy 3.)

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2. Ask relatives

Another resource for family name history information is to ask any and all relatives who might know. I was told that a family with the name of Kean was related to me. It struck me as a strange Jewish surname. My father’s cousin told me the original name was Kanovsky. I had Max Kean’s naturalization papers with the ship’s name and arrival date in New York, but I couldn’t find him on a passenger list. After a six-year search, I managed to find his daughter-in-law and she revealed that the original name was Dvorkin, my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Apparently, Max stopped briefly in England on his way to America from Russia. He found work in a tailor’s shop in London where his boss told him he had to change his name to something customers could pronounce. He saw the actor’s name Edmund Kean on a Piccadilly Circus marquee, and thus became Max Kean.

Barbara Krasner-Khait

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3. Study family trees and profiles with the same name

Of course, you’re not related to everyone who has your surname. But Ancestry.com’s Last Name Meaning tool also can give you information on profiles in its tree with your name, which may be starting places for your research. Again, use this data as clues, not absolute answers.

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4. List surname variations and misspellings

Our ancestors weren’t as persnickety as we modern folks when it comes to spelling. My own family indiscriminately used Hendricks, Hendrixson and Hendrickson. Likewise, your relative may have spelled his own name various ways in records, and branches of the family may have used different versions of a name.

In addition, in the 1800s and earlier, many people couldn’t read, write or spell. For those who could write, phonetic spelling was common: A census taker hearing a name pronounced in an unfamiliar accent probably didn’t spell it the way your ancestor did. For example, my North Carolina ancestor wrote Ferginny for Virginia.

Keep a list of common misspellings and variations of your ancestor’s surname. We’ve got a free Surname Variant Chart to help you keep track of them.

Searching for variations and phonetic spellings is especially important in the census and other indexes: If you’re not on the alert for every conceivable spelling variation, you could miss your ancestor. It’ll help to keep a list of your surnames and all the variations you can think of.

Indexer errors

You also have to contend with variations caused by indexers’ interpretations of old-fashioned handwriting. As anyone who’s ever sat staring at a census microfilm will tell you, recognizing your own name can be a challenge. In some 17th- and 18th-century documents, the capital letters I and J look almost identical, as can U and V. Lowercase letters also might throw you—for example, the so-called “long s” (frequently used as the first letter in a double-s configuration) whose drooping tail makes it look like an f or a p.

If you suspect this is the case with your name, look at original records whenever possible and identify words with letters you can read, or can guess based on context. Once you see how this particular scribe formed certain letters, you’ll have a much easier time interpreting them. 

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5. Look into DNA surname studies

The link between the Y-chromosome and surnames—barring “nonpaternity events,” our male ancestors passed both their Y-DNA and their surnames to their sons—makes genetic genealogy helpful for determining whether two men share a common male-line ancestor within recent history. Family Tree DNA offers both Y-DNA tests and a database of DNA surname projects.

If you’re a woman, note you’d need to have a male relative who inherited the surname through male lines take the test. By comparing your test results to the results and research of others in the study, you’ll get an idea of where your family members with this surname originated.

Autosomal DNA tests, offered by companies such AncestryDNA and MyHeritage DNA, can also be helpful, since these companies provide DNA matches as well as lists of ancestral surnames you and your matches share. Expert genetic genealogist Blaine T. Bettinger compares the pros and cons of autosomal and Y-DNA testing in this article.

If you join a DNA surname study with lots of participants and a well-documented lineage back to England, Ireland or Scotland, your chances of making a match are high. In that case, DNA testing can leapfrog you back 100 or more years. Even a negative result can help: My family believed most Hendricksons descended from “the frontier Hendricks” family, but DNA proved otherwise.

If you join a DNA surname study with only a handful of participants and find no matches, it’s generally because the study doesn’t yet have enough people to test against, or the family had an adoption or other undocumented parentage.

Keep in mind, though, that the present version of your surname may have been altered from the original. Immigrants to the United States, for example, often changed their names to sound more “American.” Having a surname that’s common in a certain country doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where your family came from.

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6. Join a society or one-name study

Both surname societies and one-name studies collect biographical data and vital records about everyone who shares a surname, often posting findings online.

Surname societies give members access to research, host get-togethers and coordinate DNA surname studies. Some society websites even contain password-protected areas where members can post photos and family information. To find a surname society, search for “surname society” plus the name.

One-name studies

Generally, one-name studies cover all known variants of a surname and follow that name’s occurrence throughout history. Most studies include all people of that surname, even those who acquired it by marriage.

One-name studies are popular in Britain because a national index of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales gives researchers access to records of everyone sharing a name. They also can track names back to 1841 using the every-10-years censuses.

In places without a national register (such as the United States), study administrators collect one-name data from censuses, electoral rolls, military service indexes, deeds and even telephone books. Many researchers also use the International Genealogical Index and other data from FamilySearch. The Guild of One-Name Studies has a registry of projects with administrators’ contact information.

If you’re interested in starting a study or society, it’s best to choose a less-common name. Organizing a database of all Smiths, for example, would be a next-to-impossible task.

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7. Visit specific surname websites

Surname websites provide another source of information and a way to network with other people researching the name. These personal surname pages might focus on a single name or on a surname plus affiliated families. Available information varies and can include old photos, family legends, GEDCOMs, maps and pedigree charts—or nothing. Some sites may contain little documentation, so be sure to verify what you find.

Wouldn’t it be great to find a website containing research on your surname? Maybe you can! Here’s how to track it down.

Cyndi’s List: Surnames, Family Associations & Family Newsletters

Cyndi’s List alone lists more than 5,000 personal websites—almost all of them surname specific—however, you may not find the site in Cyndi’s alphabetical listing. Her category called Surnames, Family Associations & Family Newsletters lists personal pages in alphabetic order.

So, if someone has a Webb surname page, it will be in the W section. But, if the Webb page also covers research on surnames Benton, King, Jackson and Brewster, those names won’t appear in the alphabetized surname list. What to do? Use the Search the Entire Site box located at the top of the page. The search results will return hits for your surname, regardless of which section of the site they’re in.

RootsWeb Surname/Family Lists

A lesser-known resource for personal pages is RootsWeb. From the Surname/Family Lists page, look through the alphabetical list and see if anyone has created a page for your surname. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a site loaded with family treasures!

FamilySearch Surname Search

Last, FamilySearch has a search function on the site that will search only through surname, family association or surname association Web sites. From the home page, click Search, then Web sites, then Surname and Family Organizations.

Cousin Connect/Adopted.com

This site was created so genealogists could access “pure genealogy queries” without being bothered with spam, junk messages and off-topic postings. Users can even delete or edit their own queries. You can search queries by surname or the Soundex equivalent.

GenCircles/MyHeritage

Now owned by MyHeritage, this site uses a “matching technology” to pair the people in your pedigree with those already on file. Search the surname database or post messages about individuals in the Global Tree. GenCircles offers state and county bulletin boards (called clubs), plus a Genealogy Message Searcher that simultaneously scans GenCircles’ clubs and the Ancestry-RootsWeb message boards.

GenForum/Genealogy.com

Search tens of thousands of queries left by other surname researchers. This site features bulletin boards where visitors can leave queries or post research notes. Each surname board is searchable. Old queries stay in the system, so you don’t have to worry about the one you’re looking for being hidden in an archive.

Gengateway

This searchable site has links to more than 88,000 surname records from personal web pages, query forums and mailing lists. In addition to surname searches, you can explore 12 other “gateways,” such as Ethnic, Database, Beginners and Vital Records.

Surname Web

Use the on-site search engine to access surname mailing-list archives. While searching, don’t miss the “build your own genealogy web page” tutorial and links to excellent free databases.

How else can you find surname-specific websites? Use your favorite search engine and enter keywords such as yoursurname +genealogy or yoursurname + family tree or yoursurname +history.

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8. Network on forums and lists

Some of my best online surname finds have come via these tools that have been around as long as I can remember:

  • RootsWeb mailing lists: If you sign up for a surname mailing list, you’ll receive e-mails from everyone on the list. A typical message would read: “Looking for anyone connected to Joseph and Mary (nee McFarland) Calhoun, who were in Philadelphia in the 1900 to 1920 censuses.” You also can browse and search list archives so you don’t miss out on a potential lead in a past message. Search for a list for your surname on RootsWeb, then follow the instructions to subscribe or search the archives.
  • GenForum: This popular website hosts message boards for seemingly every surname under the sun.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 2008 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

Related Reads

Want to know more about surnames? Follow our guide to find out where hereditary family names came from and how to learn more about your last name.
Understanding the surname origins can unlock answers about your ancestors. Here’s how to discover where your last name came from.
An unusual surname is a valuable tool for a genealogist. Discover six strategies to use oddball names in your tree to your greatest advantage.

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