Picking Out Patterns

By Barbara Krasner-Khait Premium

Patronymic Names

Virtually every culture had some form of patronymic naming system, though some, especially in areas such as Ireland, Wales, Spain and the Scottish highlands, used it more than others. These are common clues to patronymic names:

  • Armenian: -ian or -yan as in Hovnanian
  • Danish, Norwegian: -sen as in Sorensen
  • English, Scottish and Swedish: -son as in Olafson; the Anglo-Saxon -ing as in Browning (“son of Brun,” which means “brown”); or the Norman Fitz- as in Fitzpatrick
  • English, Welsh: -s as in Edwards
  • Greek: -opoulos as in Theodoropoulos
  • Hebrew: Ben- as in Ben-Yehuda
  • Irish: O’m– as in O’mHara (“grandson of Eaghra”), Mac- or Mc- as in MacNeill
  • Italian: De- or Di- as in DeCarlo
  • Polish: -wicz as in Danielwicz
  • Portuguese: -es or -az as in Gomes (“son of Gomo”)
  • Romanian: -escu as in Tadescu
  • Russian: -ovich as in Pavlovich
  • Scottish: Mc- or Mac- as in McCall (“son of Cachal”)
  • Spanish: -ez or -es as in Alvarez
  • Turkish: -oglu as in Turnacioglu
  • Ukranian: -enko as in Kovalenko
  • Welsh: use of ap, ab, p- or b- as in Upjohn (“son of John”) and Bowen (“son of Owen”)

Occupational Names

Surnames derived from jobs—such as Smith, Miller, Taylor, Clark, Walker, Wright, Baker, Carter, Steward, Turner, Parker, Cook and Cooper—are among America’s most common monikers. During the Middle Ages, townspeople needed to distinguish John the baker from John the tailor. These occupations were fairly common across Europe, and their use as surnames took on a decidedly local flavor. Consider these variations on the name Smith:

  • Finnish: Seppanen
  • French: Faure, Fernald, Ferris, Le Fevre
  • Gaelic: Gow, Gowan, Goff
  • German: Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz
  • Hungarian: Kovacs
  • Italian: Ferraro
  • Polish: Kowalczyk, Kowalik, Kowalski
  • Russian: Kowalsky, Kuznetsov
  • Spanish: Ferrer, Herrera
  • Syrian: Haddad

Place Names

Surnames sprang from locations when someone lived near a particular hill, brook, bush, dale, valley, island, road or village; when a person was known to have come from a certain locality; or when he owned a manor or village. Place-derived surnames dominated in England, and they’re common in Germany and France.

Suffixes such as -ton, -wick, -ley, -thorpe, -ham, -land and -ford described English locations. Stratford means “Roman road near a river crossing” and Sedgwick means “Siggi’s dwelling or dairy farm.” German and Jewish names often consist of a place name plus the suffix -er, as in Bamberger, Danziger and Berliner. Of course, you’ll also encounter versions of such names without the suffixes.

These surnames also are based on geographic proper names or descriptions:

  • Chinese: Li (“plum tree”), Wong (“field,” “wide sea” or “ocean”)
  • Dutch: Roosevelt (“rose field”), Van Pelt (“from Pelt,” meaning “marshy place”)
  • French: De Long (“from the large place”), Cassell (“chateau” or “castle”)
  • German: Bremer (“from Bremen,” the city whose name means “by the seashore”), Steinbach (“stony brook”)
  • Italian: Lombard, Lombardi, Lombardo (“from Lombardy,” the “place of the long-bearded men”), Napoli (“from Naples,” meaning “new city”)
  • Japanese: Nakagawa (“middle river”), Tanaka (“rice field”)
  • Polish: Bielski (“from Bielsk,” which means “white”), Wisniewski (“from Wiznia,” or “cherry tree”)
  • Portuguese: Ferreira (“from Ferreira,” meaning “iron mine” or “workshop”), Teixeira (“place of yew trees”)
  • Scottish: Carmichael (“castle of St. Michael”), Forbes (“field place”)
  • Spanish: Cortez (“court” or “town”), Morales (“mulberry tree”), Navarro (“the plain among hills”)

An immigrant’s new countrymen may have given him a name based on where he came from:

  • French: Langlois (“from England”), Allemand (“from Germany”)
  • German: England or Englander, Engel or Engelman (“from England”)
  • Scottish: Inglis (“from England”)


Surnames based on nicknames may describe an ancestor’s appearance (hair, eyes, complexion, stature, weight), characteristics (strong, bold, brave), skills, habits or financial status. Nickname-based surnames were popular in Italy and Portugal. Sometimes people mixed this form with the patronymic system, as in the Italian D’mOnofrio (“son of a giant”).

Like occupational names, nickname-based surnames vary by language. So, for example, if an ancestor had red hair or a ruddy complexion, he might’ve had one of these names:

  • English: Read, Rede, Reed, Bay, Gough, Rudd, Ruddy, Ruff, Russ, Russell, Rust
  • French: Larousse, Rouse, Rousseau
  • German: Roth
  • Hungarian: Voros
  • Italian: Pintozzi, Purpura, Rossini
  • Scottish: Reid
  • Slovak: Hudak

Or if he had no money, he might have been known as:

  • Czech or Slovak: Chudak
  • English: Powers, Poor
  • German: Scholl

For more information on your family’s monikers, consult American Surnames (Genealogical Publishing Co.) and the Dictionary of American Surnames (Oxford University Press).

From the January 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.