What Does Your Surname Mean?

By | April 14, 2018

While researching your family history looking for ancestors you may overlook the meaning of your last name. So, have you ever wondered what does your surname mean, and also what does it mean to you?

Finding out the meaning of your last name can be just as interesting as exploring who your ancestors were, where they lived and what they did. There will almost definitely be a story behind the origin and this can further enrich your family history story.

What Does Your Surname Mean?

Discussed in this post:


SurnameDB Has It All!

I couldn’t possibly explain the origin and the story behind every single surname. There would just be too many for me to include on this site.

That is not the purpose of The Genealogy Guide. What I want to do is to guide you with your family history research, and that is why I want to direct you to Surnamedb.

They have nearly 50,000 last names featured on the site, starting from Aaron right up to Zywicki. The site can tell you where your name comes from and what it means.

I have used this site considerably as I have learned the history behind the many surnames that are found in my family tree. Including these meanings in my family history book has enriched it considerably.

For example, I always thought that my surname, “Couch” had Devon origins, but according to the site it is actually Cornish in origin. So that was surprising. It also gave me a brief history of my last name which was very interesting.

Get your surname and meaning on a scroll!

What else that I like about this site is that you can get a scroll featuring your name with the meaning and history behind it. The scroll is a standard A4 size (8.3 × 11.7 inches), with old world calligraphic font used on the heraldically decorated parchment scroll.

It really does look class!

Not only is your surname featured but also alternate spellings as well. This is handy to know as sometimes when your are tracing your family history you may find incorrect spellings of your last name. So it’s a handy guide for you.

The scroll shows the country or countries of origin, together with the earliest known use of the name. The original meaning and translation of the surname is included, together with the its descriptive group, i.e. locational, patronymic, occupational, etc. is included as well.

Scroll Product Details:

  • Price$25 (USD), €18 (EUR), £15 (GBP), $27 (CAD), $28 (AUD), $30 (NZD)
  • Delivery – Free!
  • Receive – Within 5 working days
  • Frame Not Included!

What Is A Surname?

Before we answer that question though let us first ask the question what is a surname?

Well, a surname is usually referred to as a family name or a last name and that is handed down from generation to generation. In the Western world the surname is placed after the given name, whereas in some east Asian countries it is placed before the first name.

A person’s surname is usually passed down from the father, but this isn’t always the case.

A child may receive their mother’s surname as a result of maybe illegitimacy, for example. Sometimes people have a combination of names which is separated by a hyphen.

This is referred to as double surname or double-barrelled.

A combination is usually the case when a woman does not want to lose her family name and therefore wants to preserve it. So she will simply add her husband’s name to her own.

This double surname can then be passed down to her children.


Changing Your Name

Then there are people who change their name by deed poll. A deed poll allows a person to legally alter their name and so can be given a new identity. There are many reasons for someone to change their name.

This subject of name changing though will not be explored further here.

The use of surnames began at least 800 years ago. This practice helped to distinguish between people with the same given name. So John could be referred to as “John the smith” or “John the baker”.

The use of a surname was particularly helpful for written documents, such as parish registers or for tax purposes.

Smith

These first forms of surnames though were not passed down to the next generation, but over time this would be the case. Spelling variations though crept in through the descendants.

Surnames were occasionally misspelt by clerks and priests in documents and parish registers. Often names were recorded by how they sounded. And so this accounted for the differing spellings.

Misspelling Your Ancestors Names On Documents!

Also, it was quite common for people to misspell their name on documents because of illiteracy. Their name could therefore be spelled differently throughout their lifetime.

Variations may then be passed on to the next generation.

This has certainly been the case within one branch of my family history. Originally one branch of my family was named “Watters” but this was then changed to “Waters”.

This change in name was then used for subsequent generations. I cannot be certain though as to the change, but I do know that it happened.

This could have likely happen within your family history too. So bear this in mind when you are researching your family history. If you cannot find a relative just be wary of the different spellings that the surname could be spelt.


1. Patronymic – After the Father’s Name

This is a surname that is derived from the father’s given name. These names were constructed by either adding a prefix or a suffix to a child’s name. This would then denote whether someone was the son or the daughter of a person.

father-and-son-big

Prefix – At the beginning of the surname

The prefix ‘Mac‘ or ‘Mc‘ was used to denote the son of a person. For example a person with the surname MacDonald meant that they were the son of gentleman named Donald.

In Ireland it was common for the prefix ‘O‘ to be added, eg. O’Carroll.

Within the Welsh naming system mutations would occur and so this would result in surnames such as Bowen, Price, and Bevan. There is a simple explanation for this mutation. The word ‘ap‘ or ‘mab‘  in Welsh means ‘son of’.

So someone with the name Lewis ap Owen could be mutated to Lewis Bowen. The mutation Bowen was the result of ap Owen. Other examples such as Price from ap Rhys, and Bevan from ap Evan.

The prefix ‘Fitz’, (pronounced Fits), also announced son of. However, this prefix did sometimes indicate that this person was a bastard son, i.e. illegitimate son.

Suffix – At the end of the surname

Converse to a prefix it was common practice to append additional letters to the end of a person’s name. Examples of a suffix include ‘son’, ‘ette’ and ‘s’.

Therefore, someone with the name Wilson meant that they were the son of a person named Will.

The surname Gillette refers to someone who is the son of Giles, and Jones meaning that they are the son of someone named John.


2. Occupation – What Did They Do For A Living?

Another common form of a surname was derived from the person’s occupation. This identification could therefore help to distinguish between John the smith and John the miller.

So these people would then simply be known as John Smith or John Miller.

Fisherman

These surnames were therefore used to identify the people within the community. Other common occupational names include Taylor, Fisher, Shepherd, or Cook. There are though many, many examples.

Do you have a surname that was based on an occupation? Why not comment below.

Credit:   Ancestry

What Was My Ancestors Work Like?

I just want to digress here slightly. While tracing my own family history I looked into what my ancestors did for a living. I knew what their job title was but I didn’t know exactly what this entailed.

Therefore, I looked at books that would tell me such things as how they ran their business, what people they employed and what tools they would have used.

Doing this really made me appreciate their lives more. From this I was able to fully tell their story, rather than stating facts that I already knew about them. It brought their story to life.

Please check out my Find Your Ancestors guide where I review 14 books that can help you uncover what working life was like for your ancestor.


3. Nickname or Descriptive – What Were They Like?

These types of surnames were used to describe either someone’s personality or their appearance. These names could be based on a person’s skin coloring, facial features, or even the shape of their body.

Strong Surname

So for example a person who displayed physical prowess may be given the surname Strong. Someone who had black hair could be given the surname Black.

Sometimes though nicknames that were used to describe someone could be rather unflattering. For example, the surname Peele means someone that is bald headed.


4. Location – Where Did They Live?

The last form of surname was derived from a person’s residence. People could therefore be referred to by where they lived. A person’s surname may have evolved from a particular feature of the landscape.

Location Surname

For example someone may have gone by the surname Hill, Moore, or Wood. So in these cases the person may have lived next to a hill, a moor or by the woods.

This was just another way to differentiate between John who lived on the hill and John who lived next to the moor.

Alternatively a person may have instead used a place name for their last name. This may have been done as they had always lived in the area. Examples of this form include London, Parris, and Roma.

On the other hand some places have gotten their name from a famous person. There are many a town and city all over the world that have got their name in such a way. Maybe you know of one and if so maybe you would like to comment below.


Top 10 Surnames

Here is a list of the top 10 surnames to be found in the Western world. As you can see these names evolved from one of the four forms explained above.

  1. SmithTop 10 Surnames
  2. Johnson
  3. Williams
  4. Jones
  5. Brown
  6. Davis
  7. Miller
  8. Wilson
  9. Moore
  10. Taylor

What does the Jones surname mean?

The Jones surname has English medieval origins, deriving from either the male given name John, or the female name Joan. These were both brought over to England from France after the Conquest of 1066.

Bearers of the surname though are more likely to derive it from the patronymic form of John, rather than the matronymic form of Joan.


Thank You and Please Leave A Comment

I hope you enjoyed this article about what does your surname mean. If you think that this post will be helpful to others then please share it with friends and family using the social media buttons below.

If you have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

Author: Owain

Hello, Owain here. After researching my family history for a number of years I wanted to give back to the genealogy world. So here you will find guides, tips and product reviews that will help you on your genealogy journey.

44 thoughts on “What Does Your Surname Mean?

  1. Andrew

    A very interesting read. I’ve always thought about looking into my family history to see how far back I could go. A relative of mine created a family tree which dated back to the early 1900s. It is really intriguing finding out exactly where you came from and finding out facts you never knew about your family name. My surname is Butcher, so it obviously comes from the Occupation category. Thanks for a great article on surnames.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      I am glad that you liked the post. You can find out so much from relatives that you never knew. You may like this article that I posted which covers what to ask relatives. You never know you may learn something new.

      Reply
  2. Dejan

    Hey there!
    Interesting article you have here. I guess I already knew some of this stuff but I never really thought about it, because it’s so common. I find the names given after occupation the most interesting. Specially if it matches their real life occupation! 😀
    But yes, very interesting read for the boring afternoons at work. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      The occupational name is interesting. It’s seems to come full circle if your surname matches your profession.

      Reply
  3. lifebeginswithyourhealth

    very interesting article on our surnames, I never really considered what my surname might actually mean before reading your article. Very interesting how surnames was given in the past, this would be something very interesting to research to know more about your families past history.

    I only wonder why is it we receive our father’s surname and not our mother’s, do you happen to know how this came about?

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Not only can you research your surname, but also the female branches of your family history.

      As for receiving your father’s surname I suspect it was because they were the bread earners and so were considered ‘important’. In the past the wife’s occupation was not recorded on Census forms, and you may also know that they weren’t allowed to vote. So I guess their was more importance on the father. This though is certainly changing in the modern world where everyone has equal rights.

      Reply
  4. Pete

    Really awesome post! I’ve always been curious about how some last names came to be, but now I can sort of understand. Being from Asian decent, I imagine it may be a little different, but now at least I know why the Mc or Mac or someone with the name Cook or Smith came to be. I had a feeling that might’ve been the case, and i’m glad to see I wasn’t too far off. Great post!

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Glad you liked the post and that it cleared a few things up for you. I only touched upon Asian surnames. In time I will be covering this more.

      Reply
  5. Helen Vella

    Nice blog, good information well researched. I knew some of it but the parts I did not know were very informative considering I am from Scotland.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      I am glad you liked it. It is fascinating how names came to be. And names kept changing because of spelling mistakes as well, so I find that interesting as well.

      Reply
  6. Wendy

    This is really interesting. My surname is Henderson. My father told me that it came from Henry’s son. Apparently, we have royalty blood and are descendants of Henry the 5th. Who knows if it is true. Now you got me curious. I really need to learn more about my genealogy.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Now you really do have an interesting story. Whether it’s true and whether it can be proved, it can still be put in your family history book, (if you decide to make one). You can check out my post about making a family history book here. Please check out my site more. I plan to add more posts quite regularly now, so I’m sure there will be stuff to interest you.

      Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      You’re quite welcome. I hope you learned something from it that you can share. Hopefully it has sparked an interest in you researching your genealogy 🙂

      Reply
  7. Kerry

    I found your article to be very interesting. I had no idea that is how last names happened to come about.

    I have wanted to check out my family story for ages now but keep putting it off because the sites that you use cost money and something else always come first. I will however check out the site you suggested about checking out surnames 🙂

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      You may wish to check out How Do I Start My Family History In 10 Steps. In that post I cover how you can research your family history. Unfortunately you will have to spend some money, but that is the same with any hobby. Obtaining certificates will obviously cost money, but you can get them from local archives, which will be cheaper than online as they will charge for delivery.

      You can join genealogy sites such as Ancestry and even have free trial period. But I suggest you learn all that you can, gathering what you already have and interview your relatives.

      The surname website has been the best that I have found for my own family history research.

      Reply
  8. Juhani

    Your post about surnames is very interesting…

    I didn’t know that thing about MacDonald, so McDonald’s is a thing like this am i right?
    It’s interesting to know that it could be that Bill Gates prehistorical relatives were remembered because of their gates or “Steve Jobs” – they were hard workers – HEHE.

    Thank you for these informations, your site is very good for those who want to know more about their surname and this site make even me thinking about that where my surname has actually began?

    Have you been able to find out where your surname has began?

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Yes it is the same for McDonald. As for Bill Gates and Steve Jobs it is certainly a possibility. There may have been a blacksmith in Gates’s ancestry and that’s how the name came to be, or maybe it was locational. Who knows.

      The origin of the surname is certainly interesting. You may wish to check out What Is Genealogy? where I discuss what exactly genealogy is.

      My surname is Cornish, that being the county Cornwall in south-west England. It means someone with red-hair. So my surname comes from being a nickname.

      Reply
  9. Sonja

    What an interesting writing. Now a lot of names started to make sense for me. It’s pretty fascinating that along with language, last names change and evolve too.
    Have you ever thought of writing a piece on how to make up last names for new writers who are trying to name their characters?

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Surnames came to be through a number of reasons, being from the father or occupation. But yes they also evolved through misspellings.

      As for coming up with names for writers I must say sorry I cannot help with that as that is not my field of expertise. Tolkien and Rowling are certainly examples where they came up with fascinating names. You may want to try them out.

      Reply
  10. Charlie

    Good info man. Always found the whole genealogy thing really interesting. Thanks for the share.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Thank you and I’m glad you found it interesting. Please check out the rest of the site for more interesting facts, and guides as well.

      Reply
  11. Deedee

    I had no idea there were so many different ways that a surname could be derived! Thanks for the information, and for the link to research the meaning of a surname. I especially appreciate the bit about Irish last names. My married last name — Anderson — has always had a pretty obvious meaning to me, but I had no idea what the “O” in O’Leary (my last name at birth) meant. I do have one question for you: is there a good way to figure out if your family’s surname has changed over time? I ask because I suspect this is the case in one particular line where I’ve never been able to get far back in my research.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      I am glad you found out about your maiden name. It’s fascinating what you learn everyday, lol.

      I did a search on the House of Names for O’Leary, check it out here. It comes up with two possibilities. If your have any old documents or Census records that may help you with different spellings which you can try.

      You can also join up to a genealogy website or purchase genealogy software, which I cover here. The good thing about these is that you can type in a name and it will give you a hint. The hint that will come up may have a different spelling. So it’s worth trying that method.

      Hope that helps.

      Update: I have just come across Soundez Converter by Ancestry. I put in the O’Leary name and came up with this. It comes up with a couple more possibilities for you. Hope that helps.

      Reply
  12. Jovo

    Very interesting analysis of family names or surnames. I was not aware of the true meaning of Mac and O. The others you mentioned are too complicated to follow.

    So you speak about Patronymic origin. How about mother? I remember that in Scandinavian countries like Norway and Iceland they have Dotir or Dottir, not sure completely, which is related to some female line.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Yes I did cover mostly the patronymic origin as the matronymic surname is rather uncommon in the world.

      The first part of an Icelander’s last name will show the father’s name, and in some cases the mother. It will also have ‘son’ or ‘sson’ at the end to indicatethat they are the son. If there is ‘dottir’ then this will obviously mean that they are the daughter.

      Reply
  13. Matt

    Very interesting. I’ve always wondered where my surname came from. It makes it even more confusing with all the possible misspellings and name changes. Do these ways pertain to only western culture? My surname is Chinese so its origins may be completely different.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      The misspellings I assume would be within your culture as well. As the site grows I will also look into the Asian world. Thanks my enjoying the article.

      Reply
  14. Lanu Bennett

    This is a very good guide to the meaning of names. I always know that a man’s name is what he is really is. I have met some quite few that actually live their name. This is a spiritual aspect to a man’s name, to ensure that the man on life is called by his life path name. I am happy that this is brought out in your post. I will surely come back for more, please keep up the good work.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      It’s always interesting or maybe amusing to see when someone’s name is also their profession. It seems like it’s come full circle. Thank you for enjoying the post. I have plenty more topics to cover in the near future. Keep checking back.

      Reply
  15. Wanda

    This is a very informative post with so much historical data. Great post. I will definitely share.

    Reply
  16. Lucero Strickland

    Hi Owain
    i really enjoyed your article i did not know how my husband name Strickland now thanks to you i know more about the history of that you have a wonderful website it great, and thank you again

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      You are very welcome. It is an interesting side of genealogy that some people seem to not look at. I have researched all names in my family tree and have put their definition at the start of the chapter or section that I talk about in my book.

      Reply
  17. Judy Kingsberry@outlook.com

    I really learned a lot about this post. I had read a long time ago and about a person’s name coming from the type of work they had done. My dad’s last name was Wheeler. So does that mean he make wheels and what kind of wheels did he make? My mom’s name is Eby and I think that would have to do with a suffix, right? I do not know the answer to mom’s name. I do know that it is a common name in Swiss.
    Thanks for the information. It was fun too.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      There are a few variations on your father’s surname. They include Wheeller, Wheler, Whealler, Whealer, Wayler, Whyler, and Whaler. This surname is English and you are correct that it was an occupational name. The wheels would probably have been for horse drawn carts. These being either two wheel or four wheel carts.

      The Eby is a diminutive of the old German name Everard. Eber meant wild boar and hard meant brave and strong.

      Reply
  18. Don Yutuc

    Nice website and awesome information Owain. You give so much useful guides and tips that can help me and so many other people. And for that I thank you so much. I have bookmarked your site for future reference as I am sure I will be coming back to it again and again.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Thank you so much Don, those are very kind words. I am glad that you like the site. There is so much on this site that I have put up so far, and I plan to continue doing so.

      Reply
  19. CJ

    Did some research on SurnameDB. Turns out my surname has several possible origins and meanings. Will probably have to go with the British origin since that’s where my family is from originally.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Thanks for your comment. Yeah sometimes you will get a few origin theories. But that’s ok, you know that they have really done their homework.

      I am glad that you found what you were looking for.

      Reply
  20. Patsy

    Hi Owain,

    It never occurred to me what the meaning for my last name is, or to find out who my ancestors were.
    Surnamedb sounds interesting, especially having all the details listed on the scroll.

    I also find it interesting how a prefix originated along with a suffix I had no idea.
    I enjoyed reading your informative article it was educational.

    Thanks!

    Patsy

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Thanks Patsy for your comment. This was my go to site when I was writing my family history book.

      Just so you know I would start off each section of my book by giving an origin story for each branch of my family. I felt that it really added interest to the book.

      I thought that with this post I would also discuss where surnames came from as that is also interesting.

      Reply
  21. Megan

    Hi Owain
    I love learning about surnames as it is such a fascinating subject. There is so much to learn about ourselves from our surnames, as you said, occupation, locations, son of etc. I really love the Surname Database website for a quick explanation of surnames. Have you tried the Forebears site? I love the way they have a breakdown and map of the areas the surname is most popular.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Hi Megan,

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting. You know as I researched more and more ancestors I wanted to know more and more about them.

      One interest was surnames and their meanings. Too often this is ignored my genealogists so it’s an interesting addition to anyone’s research.

      I haven’t tried the Forebears website. Will have to check it out. Thank you.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *