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., $17.95), 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:
- Occupational names
- Place names
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; likewise in Scandinavia, though these have additional complications.
Surnames derived from occupations figure prominently on the list of America’s most common surnames, 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.
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 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.”