Meaning of Surnames – Whats in a Name?

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Meaning of Surnames

A name identifies an individual and is the first form of identity. The same goes for the meaning of surnames. Not only does it defines from where we belong but tells a lot more about our family history and ancestors’ roots. Genealogists pay great consideration to search one’s ancestors and the numerous details requested of them. But for some simple information ideas, one’s surname that has been along all your life could be of great use in knowing about the ancestry and some interesting facts might pop up while learning the history of your surname. Genealogical research often becomes easier with the help of surnames (some uncommon ones are easy in this regard). Names of clans, occupations and other titles are prevalent and tell a lot about the stories of ancestors.


The Surname Tells Stories

The meaning of a surname of a person reveals much information about his/her ancestry, here’s what it tells:

1 – Social Status

The surnames often depict the social status or what has been achieved by one’s ancestors in ancient times. Knights and other people of nobility were given titles which are passed to generations and the surname is considered in high regards as an achievement in itself. Searching for one’s family history could be made easier with the help of a surname defining the role in society of one or more of your ancestors who enjoyed the prestigious position. The first of the ancestors to take the surname (either from the paternal or maternal side) could be traced for the story. Service in wars could also be depicted in the titles given to people that become their surnames.


2 – Life Expectancy

This sounds astonishing to many, but a surname does define life expectancy to a certain extent. So have you calculated yours already?  Try life expectancy surname test.

This phenomenon is prevalent mainly because the surnames are based on the ethnic groups and belonging to different geographical locations or being from different ones by origin but settling in some other land. The way other physical attributes differ average life expectancy differs in different groups of families- and that is how it is associated with the surname.


3 – Occupation

Occupations can provide great detail when it comes to the meaning of surnames. This is definitely the easiest to tell in many cases and gives out the occupation of the great-great-great grandfathers. However, the effort has to be pooled into trace which of your ancestors were goldsmiths or merchants. Many of the surnames have been based on the occupation and regardless of the continuity of the occupation in generations to follow, the surname prevails. Surnames such as Cohen mean Bishop and Smith mean Blacksmith.

Find out more about the meaning of your surname at


4 – Patronymic 

The patronymic surnames do not reveal much about ancestry apart from the fact that they were son/daughter of someone named so and so. Many families have this culture of patronymic surnames consisting of father’s first name to be the child’s surname. Not much information could be obtained from these surnames as the name of a father could be similar to many other males in the family. Thorough research is needed in this case if the information has to be obtained.


5 – Geographical Location

The meaning of surnames has a lot to do with the geographical location of the ancestors. These surnames, based on geographical locations tell about migrations and settlements in different lands over time. Ancient roots could be traced based on these surnames identifying the country to which they belonged. Names of old cities are perceived to have noble roots and a sign of being well-bred. Online applications help more in this regard where the area is identified where the ancestors resided. Surnames such as Dench mean a person hailing from Denmark and Walsh is said to be of Celtic origin.

Genealogists and online genealogy sites are of a great help to trace back to one’s ancestors, however, a surname has a lot of potentials to turn tables and move the research in a direction which is most likely to succeed in finding the information needed. Depending upon the type of information sought about one’s ancestry, surnames could come as the great help.

If you are interested in surnames, view our article on The Benefits of Knowing Your Family Crest.

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