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American Surnames

by Elsdon C. Smith
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Learning From Your Last Name
Did you know that 43% of surnames are based on a location? Learn to identify how your surname originated and what it can tell you about your ancestry.

In general, the development of surnames and their universal use throughout the world followed commerce. The countries and parts of countries where many were engaged in trade were the first to use surnames. Agricultural districts, where man was tied to the soil to make his living, had a smaller population where the need for more exact identification was not so pressing, and were consequently, the last places to acquire universal family names....

American surnames comprise the surnames found in every country throughout the world, many with differences in spelling not seen in the old country due to the inability of clerks and government officials to record correctly the names given them by unschooled immigrants not familiar with the English, French, German, or Spanish languages currently used in the port of entry or the part of the country where they settled. When an immigrant arriving in America with little knowledge of English gave his name verbally to the officials to whom it sounded odd or unusual, it was written down by them as they heard it, and being thereby "official," it was often accepted by the immigrant himself as a correct American rendering of his name. To say that there are not American names would be wrong; one might on the contrary affirm that there are no unAmerican surnames. All family names in the United States can be and should be classified as "American" names.

But it is not enough to declare that American surnames now embody all the surnames of all the world. Immigrants to America from European countries have also consciously altered their names to relate them partially to the English language, especially as to English pronunciation, so that many names have a form and spelling, as have been mentioned, which is different from that found anywhere else. Some familiar examples might be noted. Dutch VAN ROSEVELT "of the rose field" becomes ROOSEVELT, German BLUM "flower" becomes BLOOM, GELBFISCH "yellow fish" becomes GOLDWYN, HUBER "tenant of hide of land" becomes HOOVER, KUNTZ "Conrad" becomes COONS, ROGGENFELDER "rye field" becomes ROCKEFELLER, PROERSCHING "peach tree" becomes PERSHING, SCHWAB "from Swabia (freeman)" becomes SWOPE, THALMANN "valley man" becomes TALLMAN, French GUIZOT "little Guy" becomes GOSSETT, Swedish SJÖSSTRAND "sea shore" becomes SEASHORE, Irish QUIDDHY "descendant of CUIDIGHTHIGH (helper)" becomes CUDAHY, Italian TAGLIAFERRO "iron worker" becomes TOLLIVER, and AMICI "friend" becomes AMECHE. General CUSTER of "Last Stand" fame had a Hessian soldier grandfather named KÜSTER, "minor church official in charge of the sacristy." Dutch VANDERPLOEG becomes VANDERPLOW, Finnish TERHUNEN becomes TERHUNE, and KIRKKOMÄKI becomes CHURCHILL. The list is endless....

...almost all family names may be classified on the basis of their derivation in one or more of the four following groups:

  1. From the Father's Name or other Relationships (Patronymics)
  2. From Occupation or Office (Occupational Names)
  3. From Description of Action (Nicknames)
  4. From Village Names or Landscape Features (Place Names)

In a careful check of seven thousand of the most common surnames in the United States it was found that the proportions in each class are as follows:

  Percentage
Patronymics 32.23
Occupational Names 15.16
Nicknames 9.48
Place Names 43.13

Any particular surname may originate in more than one way — in several ways, in different places and countries, and at different times. Even the ubiquitous SMITH derives from words designating other than the worker in metals. SMITH sometimes comes from smethe "smooth" as in Smithfield "the smooth field" in London. Although no recorded proof has been found, it cannot be doubted that some with that name had an ancestor living by the Smite "dirty stream" from Old English smitan "to pollute." Several others will be here discussed, not to confuse the reader, but to emphasize the point that oftentimes a family name arose in different places with different antecedents all coalescing into the same form to make just one common family name. To add to these confusions, when such a name arrived in America, there was a powerful tendency to equate an old, unfamiliar spelling of a word or place name with a more familiar, easily spelled and pronounced word or name not alien to American-English ears....

Perhaps the most prominent feature of onomastics in America, one emphasized by H.L. Mencken in his The American Language, is the tendency by ethnic groups to change the family name to adapt to American ears and tongues attuned to the English language. The stimulus is especially strong when surrounded by neighbors of English descent, weaker when they congregate in cities and districts with little contact with outsiders. Those from countries with alphabets other than the Latin had to transliterate them and different systems of transliteration produced many variant names. Foreign names are assimilated into words and names familiar to speakers of English. The most usual change of surname was by translation practiced in some degree by every foreign group....

The principal, albeit overlapping and vague, types of changes of name favored by immigrants in America, are eight in number. They are:

  1. By respelling, as when English COCKBOURNE is spelled COBURN, French NOEL becomes NOWELL, and German ALBRECHT changes to ALBRIGHT.
  2. By translation, as when Irish BREHONY becomes JUDGE, and German RUEBSAMEN translates to TURNIPSEED.
  3. By transliteration, as when a Russian name spelled in the Cyrillic alphabet is changed to the Latin alphabet, or a Chinese name written in ideographs is expressed in the alphabet used in America.
  4. By abbreviation, as when Welsh DAVIES contracts to DAVIS and German GOLDBERGER shortens to GOLDBERG.
  5. By extension, as when JOHNSON increases to JOHNSTONE and RUSSEL becomes RUSSELL.
  6. By conversion, as when the German MUELLER changes to MILLER and the Swedish JONSSON becomes JOHNSON.
  7. By dropping diacritical marks, as when the Swedish SJÖGREN "sea, branch" unveils to SJOGREN.
  8. By substitution, as when SMITH becomes JONES and BLACK becomes FIELDS.

It may be helpful to note a few of the most common elements in American names which provide hints in recognizing the national antecedents of the bearer from inspection of his family name. Surnames terminating in -ley, -ton, -ham, -ford, -field, and -brook are usually from English village names. Some German locality endings are -au, -bach, -baum, -berg, -bruck, -dorf, -heim, -hof, -horst, -reut, -stadt, -stein, -thal, and -wald. The ending -er is found in English and German names and the ending -mann (often contracted to the English -man) connotes a German name; both indicate occupational names or denote that the original bearer came from the place or town indicated. Von may be observed in German names hinting at nobility while the van, vander, and vanden stamp the bearer as Dutch and merely mean "at" and "at the."

The patronymical terminations are very helpful in assessing the nationality of the bearer's paternal parent. The ending -son is found in English, Scottish, Swedish and Norwegian names. When spelled -sen, it is Danish or Norwegian. The prefix O' indicates an Irish name while Mac and Mc is either Irish or Scottish. Most Armenian names terminate in -ian, sometimes changed to -yan. The ending -nen usually indicates Finnish ancestry. The Spanish patronymical form is -ez and -es, and the Portuguese form is -es and -az. Russian -ovich, Polish -wicz, Rumanian -escu, Ukrainian -enko, and Turkish -oglu are telltale patronymical elements. Ibn or ben is found in Arabian names. Common masculine names with the -s ending are often of Welsh derivation....

Most Russian surnames end in -ov, -in, or -ev. If the ending is -sky, the man is probably Russian; if it is -ski, he is likely to be of Polish descent. A common Portuguese suffix is -eira. The Frisian -stra indicates place or location while the ending -sma is used with occupational names. Common Swedish nature terminations are -blad, -blom, -dahl, -ek, -gren, -holm, -lind, -lof, -lund, -kvist, -sjo, -strand, and -strom. Many Belgian occupations names are preceded by the definite article De, but the same term in French names is the preposition "of" or "from." The French also use the article Le and the preposition or contraction Du. Arabs employ the definite articles, Al or El. The simple endings -is and -os often indicate transliterated Greek names. The diminutives -eau, -el, -iau, -on, -ot and various combinations of these or double diminutives are frequently noted in French names. Common Italian diminutive endings are vowels enclosing double consonants, as -ello, -etti, -illo, -ucco, -ucci, and -uzzo....

To arrive at the exact derivation or meaning of a surname is not easy. Many are not what they appear to be. BARKER did not bay like a dog but devoted his working time to preparing leather from Old English bark "to tan." POINTER did not direct people where to go by the use of an extended forefinger, but was one who made laces and cords for fastening hose and doublet together. USHER did not show people to their theatre seats but was a doorkeeper, one who kept watch at the door to the king's apartment. SPITTLE does not mean that; it designates one who dwelt or worked at the hospital, a place of shelter or entertainment for travelers in the Middle Ages. But SPEAKER and SPEAKMAN did act as advocates or spokesmen for others. In contrast to European names, the correct interpretation of English surnames can be given with greater confidence because of the many early documents containing them still extant.

...As we attempt to drag the meaning of our surnames from the dark, cloudy murky past, it must be remembered that many names of diverse origins with only slightly varied spellings tended to freeze into the usual common, generally modern, English spellings familiar to most people. Any simple-looking name with an apparently obvious meaning can thus have become the end result of the cohesion of a half dozen or more completely different names several of which are from diverse languages. Ordinary vagaries of spelling and sound differences found even in adjacent communities are responsible in many instances.

Learning about the origins of surnames can be interesting, and also practical. Now that you know something about the surnames of different nationalities and how they may have changed over the years, you may be better-equipped to locate some of your family records. If you can't find older family records under the current spellings of your family surnames, think about the likely ways in which those names may have changed, and then look for records under those spellings. You may be pleasantly surprised.


About the Author
Elsdon C. Smith has authored several name books, including The Story of Our Names, Dictionary of American Family Names, and Naming Your Baby. In addition, he co-founded the American Name Society in 1951.

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