Editor’s Note: The post below includes an excerpt from Lloyd Bockstruck’s book, The Name Is the Game: Onomatology and the Genealogist. We are focusing on surname history, as that can be a common question and potential pitfall to be tackled in genealogical research.
Names, like people, have lives of their own, which is why Lloyd Bockstruck’s recently published book about the serendipity and life’s choices that can alter our family names is must-reading for every researcher. Mr. Bockstruck, one of America’s foremost genealogists and the former genealogy librarian at the Dallas Public Library, has distilled the wisdom of a lifetime about the vagaries of names into this work. Eminently readable, The Name Is the Game: Onomatology and the Genealogist is a collection of illustrations and cautionary tales that can help family historians surmount the obstacles or avert the pitfalls associated with naming practices throughout the centuries.
The book is divided into five chapters, and it engages the reader at the get-go. For instance, in the introductory first chapter Bockstruck relates a number of first-hand accounts that fostered his early fascination with names, such as his initial failure to find the tombstone of German great-aunt Barbara Baker (born Barbara Becker). The introduction’s high point is the incredible story of the peregrinating Scots colonist Ian Ferguson, whose name was recorded as Johann Feuerstein when he was among the Pennsylvania Palatine immigrants, and was later recorded as John Flint when he moved to Philadelphia. Two generations later, one of his grandsons, Peter Flint, moved to Louisiana, where he was recorded as Pierre a Fusil, only to end up as Peter Gunn when he settled in Texas after the Civil War.
While we obviously recommend reading the book for yourself, we will be excerpting from Chapter 3, the “Surname” section of the book. This is the longest section of the book, and it covers lots of territory. Topics include maiden names, spelling, surname misinterpretation, aliases, military influences, changes in language, dialects, surname abbreviations, and much more.
Please enjoy Part I below, and visit us again soon to read more from The Name Is the Game: Onomatology and the Genealogist:
The use of an additional name to differentiate among people of the same Christian name in a community began as a byname. It was not until that the second name became hereditary that it became a surname.
The first people to adopt more than one name were the Chinese. It was Emperor Fushi who ordered the use of family names in 2832 B.C.
Family names can be grouped according to five categories. One is for surnames derived from toponyms, i.e. places or features of the landscape or ofnames of actual localities.The Jacob who lived at the edge of the woods would become Jacob at the woods or Jacob Atwood. His neighbor who lived in the agricultural belt of the community might become John Fields. William Hill, Robert Brooks, John Rivers, or Peter Meadows are other examples of people taking a surname from a landscape feature. The Germans and the English have a high incidence of such surnames.
Other surnames are indicative of a trade or occupation such as Smith, Carpenter, Taylor, Shepherd, Teacher, Turner, Cooper, and Wheelwright.
Sometimes people who excelled in particular roles in morality plays acquired surnames from their roles. Sheriff, Duke, King, and Bishop are examples of such.
Still other surnames arose to express relationships . Jeremiah the son of John became Jeremiah Johnson. William the son of Richard became William Richardson, and Richard the son of William became Richard Williamson. Sometimes the suffix “-son” was expressed in the possessive so that the letter “s”was appended to the Christian name as in Williams for the son of William or Harris for the son of Harry.
Sometimes it was the diminutive of a forename which Jed to the adoption of the surname as in Dickson or Robinson . Patronymical surnames predominate among the Welsh, Scots, Irish, Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians. They are also widespread among the Germans and Poles.
Surnames also derived from nicknames indicating a physical or personality trait such as Goodfellow, Short, or Black. The Italians and Irish favor this category.
It was said of the Todd family of Kentucky that their surname had two d’s while God had only one.
Please visit us again soon for Part II!
Image credit: Grave stones These are around the perimeter of the ruined church of St Mary’s. By Dennis Simpson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.