Surname Meanings

Having surnames or family names is a relatively new concept. In the days of our ancestors, people knew each other well enough that they were easily identified by their given names alone. Only once populations grew, and families started moving farther apart did the idea of the family name take hold and become common custom.

Originally, surnames came from descriptions of that person, or were terms that identified them by occupation, their birthplace or other types of features. They also sometimes were used to indicate that an individual as the “son of” someone else. This convention was used the most often in Scandinavian and Celtic regions, and is still used today. Sven Bjornson was really just Sven, the son of Bjorn.

Other types of this father-based naming system can be seen in Gaelic (Mac, Mc), Norman (Fitz), Welsh (ap) and Irish (O’) cultures. But these names were still really based on given names, and they changed with each generation. If Sven Bjornson had a son, that son might be named Leif Svenson.

Eventually, people held on to their surnames rather than create new ones, and the idea of the permanent family name came about.

Often, you can trace the “meaning” of what your surname was originally, though its not always going to give you deep profound information about your life. There are some places online that have larger dictionaries of surname meanings:

Behind the Name

If you wanted to get a print book, you might find that more helpful when you consider the many thousands of name possibilities you may come across. Here are a few that you should look at:

The Concise Dictionary of Surnamessurname meanings, by Shelley Klein
A Dictionary of Surnames, by Patrick Hanks
The Surnames Handbookgenealogy, by Debbie Kennett

One of these books could be a helpful addition to your personal library if you want to do ongoing genealogy research into the meanings of surnames or family names. Just don’t expect there to be an easy answer. Not all surnames even have meanings. People didn’t record down why they used a certain name in their family, they just did.