Now What? Surname Sources

By Katherine Scott Sturdevant Premium

Q. One thing about surnames has always puzzled me: If people were often named after their occupations, why is Smith the most common name instead of Farmer? A village could usually support only one or two blacksmiths, but had dozens of farmers. Yet Farmer is not even in the top 20. And why is Brown so popular, but there are only a few Greens and Blacks? Red and blue may show up in foreign names, but there aren’t any yellows or oranges.

A. The key to surname origins is not just what was most common, but what might have distinguished one family from another. Distinguishing people, after all, was the whole purpose of naming. For example, the smith in a village would stand apart by his trade and thus that would be his “label.” Almost every other man would be farming, so it was necessary to distinguish those families by something else. Of course, in later American history, those wishing to assimilate, such as recent immigrants or former slaves, would perpetuate the trend by taking the simplest and most common American names.

In pre-colonial Britain, the name Farmer often designated a noble family, that of a landowner high-ranking enough that his tenants or servants did the manual labor. Thus, Farmer didn’t usually mean the commonplace folks.

As for colors, brown, black, white and green are the most commonplace in our lives and thus our naming. Brown may have referred to skin tone in some ancestors. Again, immigrants altering foreign names in order to assimilate, such as Braun or Braunreiter, might take Brown. Green often designated someone who lived on the old-world village green, but again would be a logical name conversion for immigrants. The other colors mentioned are less related to earth, grass, forest or crops, and thus to a family’s location.

We can speculate on the unknown origins of ancient naming practices through social history and word usage, but we may never know a single moment or motive for inventing those names. See Family Names: How Our Surnames Came to America by J. N. Hook (Collier Books, out of print) to learn more about naming patterns.

From the June 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine