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What's In A Name?

Shakespeare said "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" meaning, that just because Romeo had the wrong last name family-feud-wise, he was still the one for Juliet, right? Your last name is the first clue about your ancestry. On the occasion of Fathers' Day let's take a look at surnames.

How did the use of last names, or family names, or surnames come about? The Chinese started using surnames about 3,000 years ago, but they were not used in Europe until the Middle Ages (5th-13th centuries).

As people began to be fruitful and multiplied, and to populate villages they needed a way to differentiate between Jacques the MILLER and Jacques the blackSMITH for example. Surnames are classified as patronymic (father's name), locative (place), occupational, and nicknames or characteristics (Eric the Red).

The use of the patronymic varies between languages and countries. Johnson is pretty self-explanatory (Johns son)! Everyone knows that O'Hara means that you are of Irish descent, the son of Hara. Mac or Mc indicates Scottish ancestors. Russian or Slavic names end in -ich, or -ov if the child is a son (Petrovich) but if it's a girl, the last name would be (Petrovna). Color me surprised when I recently learned that the Spanish ending of -ez meant "son of" - Sanchez being the son of Sancho!

Matromynic last names are derived from the mother's line, but these are not as widely used worldwide; this is mostly found in Asia. Historically, the use of only the mother's last name generally indicates an "illegitimate" birth, or that the father died before the baby was born. In Latin countries, children are given two last names, the first being the father's last name, and the second being the mother's last name, a blessing for genealogists!

So, I know it's Fathers' Day weekend, but have you ever wondered why it is women give up their #maiden names? We can thank the Norman (aka Vikings or Norsemen) conquest of England for this practice! The common law at that time was coverture. An unmarried woman could sign contracts, execute a will, and own property but not a married woman! Upon marriage, she lost her identity as an individual, and became a single entity with her husband. Unless there was a separate property (prenup) agreement in place, her property became her husband's property. The name change was part of this assumption of her identity.

This practice came over to America and there were some early cases that held that a woman had to take her husband's last name. This began to change in the middle 1800's. Currently, a woman does not have to take her husband's last name. But, should a husband want to take his wife's last name, only eight US states have a specific process for this to take place as part of the marriage, and not have to file a separate legal procedure. Recent surveys show that women with a college degree were two to four times more likely to keep their maiden names, depending on their age.

This practice of taking husbands' surnames has made life easier for genealogists. Tracing the history of #daughters and remarried women requires a lot of extra detective work and quite a bit of luck!

More information on this topic can be found at

I have begun researching family naming traditions (first son, first daughter, etc.) and hope to have this ready for our next meeting. Hoping this post has piqued your interest further into your #family #history.

Oh, I almost forgot! DNA testing kits are ON SALE everywhere for Fathers' Day. This is a great opportunity for you to save some money if you are ready to test your DNA. This earlier blog post has comparisons with the different membership sites with links so you can easily compare deals

If you have a question please drop me a line (how old-fashioned that sounds!) at or on the Facebook page @WhoIComeFromGenealogy. I will happily #review your tree info to give you a quote on additional research, or answer general questions.

Best wishes,

Leslie Ryan


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