What’s in a Name?

By Barbara Krasner-Khait Premium

I once agreed to help a friend whose 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, her name was 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.

For starters, remember that last names are a relatively recent invention. Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble notwithstanding, humanity didn’t come out of the cave with surnames attached. In Europe, as the population began to grow in the 10th century, it became increasingly difficult to refer to someone only by a given name. Born of necessity, hereditary surnames developed gradually during the 11th through 15th centuries across Europe, generally following commercial trade routes.

Picking a name

Naming practices developed differently from region to region and country to country. Yet even today hereditary names tend to fall into one of four categories: patronymic (named from the father), occupational, nickname or place name. According to Elsdon Smith, author of American Surnames (Genealogical Publishing Co., $21.99), a survey of some 7,000 surnames in America revealed that slightly more than 43 percent of our names derive from places, followed by about 32 percent from patronymics, 15 percent from occupations, and 9 percent from nicknames.

Often the lines blur between the categories. Take the example of Green. This name could come from one’s clothing or given to one who was inexperienced. It could also mean a dweller near the village green, be a shortened form of a longer Jewish or German name, or be a translation from another language.

In your genealogy research, you’ll likely come across most of the four main categories of surnames:

1. Patronymics

Virtually every culture seemed to have some form of patronymic system, though some relied on it more heavily than others. In Ireland, the Scottish highlands, Wales and Spain, the majority of names are patronymics; the same was true in Scandinavia, though these have additional complications that we’ll dicuss later. Here are the most common clues to patronymic names in different cultures:

English, Scottish, Swedish: son, as in Olaf-son; also –ing from Anglo-Saxon times as in Browning (“son of Brun,” which in turn means “brown”); also the prefix Fitz-, the Norman patronymic form as in Fitz-patrick.

Danish, Norwegian: sen, as in Sorensen

Scottish: Mc or Mac, as in McCall (“son of Cachal”)

English, Welsh: s as in Edwards

Irish: O’ as in O’Hara (meaning “grandson of Eaghra,” which means “bitter or sharp”)

Welsh: use of ap, or prefix of p– or b– as in Upjohn (“son of John”) and Bowen (“son of Owen”)

Italian: prefix of De or Di as in DeCarlo

Ukrainian: enko as in Kovalenko

Spanish: ez or –es as in Alvarez (“son of Alva”)

Portuguese: es or –az as in Gomes (“son of Gomo”)

Romanian: escu as in Tadescu

Armenian: ian or –yan as in Hovnanian

Russian: ovich as in Pavlovich

Polish: wicz as in Danielewicz

Turkish: oglu as in Turnacioglu

Greek: opoulos as in Theodoropoulos (“son of Theodore”)

Hebrew: use of ben as in Ben-Yehuda

2. Occupational Names

Surnames derived from occupations figure prominently on the list of America’s most common surnames (see below), including Smith, Miller, Taylor, Clark, Walker, Wright, Baker, Carter, Stewart, Turner, Parker, Cook and Cooper. During the Middle Ages, it was useful to distinguish John the baker from John the tailor. The occupations were fairly common across Europe, and their use as surnames took on a decidedly local flavor. Here’s an example using Smith:

Finnish: Seppanen

French: Faure, Fernald, Ferris, Le Fevre, Le Febvre

Gaelic: Gow, Gowan, Gaff

German: Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz

Hungarian: Kovacs

Italian: Ferraro

Polish: Kowalczyk, Kowalik, Kowalski

Russian: Kowalsky, Kuznetsov

Spanish: Ferrer, Herrera

Syrian: Haddad

3. Place Names

Surnames sprang from place names in several ways: when someone was associated with or living near or by a particular hill, brook, bush, dale, valley, island, bridge, meadow, road or village; when the person was known as coming from a particular locality; and when the individual owned a manor or village. Place-derived surnames dominate in England and they’re common in Germany and France.

The first time I looked up my maiden name of Krasner in a surname dictionary, I saw that it meant either “beautiful” or “fat.” In general, there’s a big difference between how society views the two. But it wasn’t until Alexander Beider issued his comprehensive A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire (Avotaynu) that 1 learned the name actually meant someone “from the village of Krasnoe” and that it was common in certain localities in Belarus.

Bob Allen of New York City recently told me of his family name’s place-relation evolution that took an interesting turn. The original name was Greenberg or “green mountain.” When his ancestors came from Russia to America, they settled in lower Manhattan on Allen Street, named for Ethan Allen (and his Green Mountain men of Vermont), and changed their name accordingly.

Official names of towns and villages began as descriptive names given to them by neighbors, and the original bearers of surnames based on localities were inhabitants of these places. Suffixes such as –ton, –wick, –ley, –thorpe, –ham, –land and –ford described English locations. For instance, Sedgwick means “Siggi’s dwelling or dairy farm” and Stratford means “Roman road near a river crossing.” Scottish locations turned into surnames include Carmichael (“castle of St. Michael”) and Forbes (“field place”).

German and Jewish names often added an –er to the name of the locality, such as Bamberger, Danzinger or Berliner. Of course, versions of such names without the suffix also exist.

Other examples include family names based on a geographic proper name or a description of a place:

Chinese: Li (“plum tree”), Wong (“field,” “wide sea” or “ocean”)

Dutch: Roosevelt (“rose field”), Van Pelt (“from Pelt,” meaning “marshy place”)

French: Cassell (“chateau” or “castle”), De Long (“from the large place”)

German: Bremer (“from Bremen,” meaning “by the seashore”), Steinbach (“stony brook”)

Italian: Lombard, Lombardi, Lombardo (“from Lombardy,” place of the “long-bearded men”), Napoli (“from Naples,” meaning “new city”)

Japanese: Nakagawa (“middle river”), Tanaka (“rice field”)

Polish: Bielski (“from Bielsk,” meaning “white”), Wisniewski (“from Wiznia,” “cherry tree”)

Portuguese: Ferreira (“from Ferreira,” meaning “iron mine” or “workshop”), Teixeira (“place of yew trees”)

Spanish: Cortez (“court” or “town”), Morales (“mulberry tree”), Navarro (“the plain among hills”)

In addition, a whole class of names distinguished arrivals from foreign places:

from Flanders: Flanders, Fleming

from England: England or Englander, Engel or Engelman (in German), Ijmghis (in French), Inglis (in Scotland)

from Germany: Allemand (in France), Nemetz (meaning “mute” in Polish and Russian)

4. Nicknames 

The word “nickname” is derived from “an eke name,” or added name. In a sense all surnames began as extra names, so technically speaking, all surnames are nicknames of one sort or another.

In our classification scheme, hereditary family names based on nicknames often describe an ancestor’s appearance (stature, hair, eyes, complexion, size), a characteristic or trait (strong, bold, brave), financial status, habits or special skills. Nickname-based names were popular in Italy and Portugal. Sometimes, this form was mixed with the patronymic system as in the Italian D’Onofrio, “son of a giant.”

Like occupational names, surnames from nicknames vary by language. So, for example, if an ancestor had red hair or a ruddy complexion, he might have been called one of the following:

English: Read, Rede, Reed, Bay, Gough, Rudd, Ruddy, Ruff,Russ, Russell, Rust

Scottish: Reid

Irish: Flynn, Gooch

French: Larousse, Rouse, Rousseau, Roux

Germany: Roth

Hungarian: Voros

Italian: Pintozzi, Purpura, Rossini, Rossetti

Slovakian: Hudak

If he had no money, he might have been known as:

English: Powers, Poor

Germany: Scholl

Czechoslovakia: Chudak

Exceptions to the rule

Naming practices among some cultural groups don’t fall neatly into these four categories. Here are some noteworthy exceptions to keep in mind as you go surname-sleuthing:

SCANDINAVIAN: In Scandinavia, men typically bore two surnames: a patronymic and a farm name. Neither name was passed from one generation to the next. Farms formed the center of people’s lives, and if they moved from one to another, their farm-based names changed accordingly. Some farm names date back 2,000 years or more. If you see Scandinavian surnames with suffixes of –bo, –by, –gardr, –heimr, –land, –rud, –setr, –stad or –vin, it’s likely they’re derived from farms.

The patronymic form dominated Scandinavian naming practices. Children of Carl bore the surnames of Carlsen (“son of Carl”) or Carlsdatter (“daughter of Carl”) in Denmark and Norway and Carlsson or Carls-dotter in Finland and Sweden. While this system worked well to identify the father’s given name, it wreaked havoc otherwise. In Denmark, for instance, about half the country’s inhabitants share 14 surnames. To deal with this dilemma in later years, the Swedes began to form surnames by combining two words, usually based on nature.common names using this form include: Dablquist (“twig from the valley”), Lindstrom (“linden tree stream”) and Sundberg (“sound from the mountain”). Often just one word was used, as in the name of singer Jenny Lind. Beginning in the 20th century, the Swedish government encouraged creation of new surnames not based on the patronymic system.

JEWISH: Even at the rime of the mass wave of immigration from 1880 to 1920, hereditary surnames among Eastern European Jews were relatively new—maybe 100 years old or less. In their villages, they were known as “Yudel the tinsmith” or “Mendel, son of Mordechai.” For millennia, Jews had been using a patronymic naming tradition.

The Jews of Spain, who as a result of the Inquisition migrated throughout Europe, the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East, used hereditary family names as early as the 11th century. The development of these names was by choice.

Not so for their brethren in Eastern Europe. There, surname adoption was required by government edict, beginning in 1787–88 in the Hapsburg Empire, 1804 and 1835 in the Russian Empire and 1821–1825 in the Kingdom of Poland.

The process was sometimes arduous and frequently contentious. Under duress, many Jews were assigned fanciful names, like my grandmother’s name of Zuckerkandel (“rock candy”). Often, family members officially had different surnames. This brings home the notion that not all people with the same surname are related, and indeed, this bears out in most cultures.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN: Many slaves assumed the names of their masters or, when freed, the names of non-African-Americans they knew. In this way, they adopted the predominantly patronymic surnames of the English, Welsh and Irish. Common names include Harris, Jackson, Jones, Robinson, Williams and Thomas.

Does spelling count?

In a word: no. In my grandparents’ 1918 New York City marriage record, my grandfather’s mother’s maiden name was entered as Turnsky. The first time I encountered this family in the records for the town of Zareby Koscielne in Russian Poland, the name appeared as Dunsky. As I continued my research in these vital records I came across many variations: Donski, Dansky, Donicki, Doniczki and even Donszczkow.

Be prepared for lots of spelling variations in American records as well as records from the country of origin. Illiteracy was high and spelling didn’t seem to matter much—the sound was what was important. If you’re researching the name Dickinson, for example, you’ll also want to check variants such as Dickerson, Dickason and Dickison.

In the 1930s, the US government introduced a system for coding surnames based on sounds, appropriately called Soundex. It assigned a numerical code for consonants and disregarded vowels. Consonants that had similar sounds were grouped together. My maiden name of Krasner, for instance, is coded as K62S; if somebody spelled it Krezmer or Krezmen, both would be K625. Passenger arrival indices, naturalization record indices and census records rely on this system, and it can make it easier for you to search spelling variations. Many online search engines, such as those at and, use Soundex to aid search results.

Soundex isn’t foolproof, though. It doesn’t group the sounds sh and sch together, a problem for finding some German names. And the name you’re researching may have been entered so incorrectly that it gets a Soundex code you wouldn’t know to look for. That was the case with the ship arrival record for my grandmother, whose name of Zuckerkandel (Soundex Z262) appeared as Zuckenkandel (Z252). Many genealogical software programs have utilities that can easily code names for you. 

Common or uncommon?

Common surnames such as Smith, Jones, Miller, Johnson and Brown became even more common over the years as immigrants changed their original names to these to sound more “American.” Several members of my own Mularzewicz family changed their name to Miller when they arrived in America from Poland.

The good news about researching a common surname is that you’ll find lots of information. The not-so-good news is that it might be difficult to determine how the information directly relates to you. If you’re researching a common name, try concentrating on your direct family and their localities at first.

On the other hand, if you have an unusual surname it can be frustrating to find any information at all. Yet, when you do, it will be much easier to understand how it directly fits into your family. “Unusual names have two advantages — there are limited numbers and everyone remembers it if they ever met one,” says family historian Israel Pickholtz. “The advantages and uses of the first are obvious. I was surprised to find how important the second is. People tend to remember some elementary school classmate or casual acquaintance with an unusual name.”

Particularly useful with rare or unusual names, one-name studies or single-name research groups can help you network with others interested in your surname. Check out the Guild of One-Name Studies. The guild registers all one-name studies, ranging from geographic instances and name changes to the creation of a single family tree. Many of the registered studies seek to pinpoint the origin of the name. You can also learn about your and your ancestors’ first names and surnames at Behind the Name.

There may already be a research group established for your name—if there isn’t, consider starting one of your own. Post queries on surname bulletin boards. You may be surprised by the information someone else has already gathered and you may get to know “new” family members.

The Ellis Island Myth

There’s an old story about an Ellis Island official asking a Jewish immigrant his name. The nervous immigrant replied “schon vergessen,” Yiddish for “already forgot.” And so the official entered his name as “Sean Ferguson,” a surprising name for a Jewish immigrant.

Many of us have heard that our family names were changed at Ellis Island. Pressures from community leaders, bosses at work, teachers and previous immigrants from the same hometown encouraged the new arrival to assimilate—and that meant Anglicizing the family name. Ellis Island became a symbol of the assimilation process, but the truth is that it’s just a symbol. According to Marian Smith, historian at the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, years of assimilation seemed to collapse into one day at Ellis Island, whether the immigrant was actually processed there or not.

Though advocating an unpopular view, Smith says logic and documentation show that immigrants routinely changed names on their own without any help from a government official. My grandfather’s surname was Pryzant, pronounced “prison.” Once he found out what that meant in English, he decided to change it to Perlman. There’s no paper trail to testify to the change.

Only the original will do

Regardless of how your family’s name may have changed, before long, knowing the original name becomes a research must. The first place to go for 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.

If interrogating your relatives doesn’t help, your next step is to get your ancestor’s naturalization papers—assuming, of course, that he or she became a citizen. If you know where your ancestor was naturalized, this will be a great help. The federal census, available through the National Archives and its branches, can help pinpoint the date of naturalization as well.

For tracing your female ancestors, of course, you need to find the original maiden name. The ease of that quest varies with the culture. In some countries, such as Italy and France, it was customary for women to always use their maiden names in legal documents. This includes vital records and makes it easier to follow the trail of female ancestors, though it may take some getting used to. Note, however, that when trying to find a mother and her children on a ship’s passenger list, the mother may be listed under her maiden name while her children may be listed by their father’s surname.

It’s important to know the culture you’re researching to determine the record-keeping practices. Civil authorities in the province of Galicia in Austria-Hungary, for instance, didn’t recognize religious Jewish marriages. Children of such marriages were considered to be illegitimate and their names often appeared on vital records using the mother’s maiden name.

No matter what names your family goes by now, chances are there’s a rich heritage waiting for you as you learn more about the names that fill your family trees. Though my friend’s brother has gone back to his family name of Sebastian and my friend, now married, is using her husband’s name of Nash, there’s no denying their Portuguese heritage. What’s in a name? Your history.   

More Resources

A version of this article originally appeared in the December 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine