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Surname Switcheroo?


yellow arrows showing movement of switching direction

Is a lost ancestor your brick wall? Has there been a Surname Switcheroo in your family? Genealogy research in most Western countries can be pretty straight forward, as most families used the same last name from generation to generation. It can be trickier if you are trying to trace your roots in a non-Western country.


In the Eastern Naming System of Asian areas, the last name comes first. For example, "Kim Jung Un," (the North Korean dictator). His last name is "Kim," his given names are "Jung Un." Upon emigration your ancestor's name order may change to the Western standard of "Jung Un Kim." The European outlier for name order I have found is Hungary.


In some Latin countries such as Spain and Mexico, both parental last names are used, the father's comes first, the mother's second. But beware! In some countries, the mother's surname comes first before the father's! Search under both if you have a missing ancestor.


Multi-color map of Russia, E Europe, the Baltics

In researching Eastern European families (Russia, the Baltics, etc.) the last name can depend upon gender, as they often use a Patronymic naming system. The son of Ivan could be "Ivanovich" and the daughter may be "Ivanova."


Irish and Scottish names can change with the additions of prefixes such as "O'" or "Mac" or "Mc" signifying child of Donald in "McDonald."


Surname traditions are changing in these modern days now that women do not necessarily assume the names of their husbands, and sometimes the two family names are hyphenated. In China, women have not changed their names upon marriage for years.


In 2022, The Swaddle reported that Italian courts ruled, "...The Constitutional Court in Rome ruled a baby should be assigned surnames of either both the parents when they are born — or be given a new last name unrelated to both the partners. This tradition of only sticking to the father’s last name, alas, is “discriminatory and harmful to the identity” of a child, the court said, as reported by Reuters."


Black and Yellow Star of David Badge
Bulgarian Star of David Lapel Badge Kenyon.edu

Historically, some name changes have been forced upon people, such as when the Nazi's forced people to change their names once they had been conquered, to either be more "Germanized" or more "Jewish" to make them even more identifiable. Even if they had converted to Christianity and changed their names, they were forced to take back their Hebrew names. They also changed many place names, but that's a topic for another time.


In America, Natives were required to adopt "English" names under The Dawes Act of 1887. Recently, under the new regulations of the US Customs and Immigration Service, recipients of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) have been forced to use both of the last names found on their birth certificates, even if they have never used them.


Don't fall for the urban legend of names being butchered at Ellis Island! The clerks there used the ships' manifests which were completed when the emigrant bought their passage to America. Not all of our ancestors could spell anything, including their own names. Identification documents were not always required, and a person could change their name then, or later upon establishing themselves in America, as name changes were not formalized until the early 1900's.


Dachshund peeking up out of box on hind legs

Think outside the box when trying to find that missing ancestor! Keep an eye out for a surname switcheroo, whether accidental or intentional. When all else is failing, DNA is your best friend. Test more family members, widen your database search. Father's Day sales are everywhere for DNA testing and memberships, take advantage of the discounts if you are able.


Need help with your brick wall? Send me an email for a free evaluation and quote on further research.


Hope you are having a great start to your summer,

Leslie Ryan

“World peace must develop from inner peace. Peace is not just mere absence of violence. Peace is, I think, the manifestation of human compassion.” ― Dalai Lama XIV


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