Where do different surnames come from?

6 May 2024

When it comes to family history, one of the most accessible places to begin is in understanding your family surname. There is often a pretty logical process to this, one which we started to explore in this previous blog, when a surname originally relates to a characteristic of a person such as a geographical reference – Field, or a profession – Smith.

When a name does not have a characteristic origin, one of the most common patterns to look for is patronymic or matronymic origin. Read on as we take you through these terms and what they mean for family history before looking at one or two famous examples – from a World Cup winning footballer to a soap star from Coronation Street – as well as the woman with no surname

Patronymic and matronymic naming

If you have an interest in language or classical studies, you may recognise that one word relates to fathers and the other mothers – so names being passed down from the male or female side of the family.

On balance, a reference to the father’s name in a surname is more prevalent than a mother’s in cultures around the world. The format will normally be a suffix or prefix meaning son or daughter in a given language, adjoined to the father’s forename.

While satisfying the natural and understandable curiosity of anyone paying a casual interest to their family history, this can be a key clue to professional heir hunters/family historians like us. The name may give a clue to past geographical origins.

Common examples of patronymic and matronymic names

(Image courtesy of Greenwich Historical Society)

So let’s take a look at some patronymic/matronymic suffixes (at the end of the name) and prefixes (at the beginning) from around the world, first identifying them as “this sort of name”, and second revealing the geographical origin. We’ll start with an easy one for people in our native United Kingdom:

Mac/Mc- – Yep, you’ve guessed it. This prefix means “son of” in Scottish and Irish names. So MacDonald means “son of Donald”.

Ap – Less common, “Ap” as a standalone prefix is the Welsh equivalent. Over time this prefix rolled into simply adding a P to the start of a father’s name. For example “Ap Richard” becoming “Pritchard”.

-son – Another relatively easy one, well, especially since it literally says “son” in the name. This suffix is English, but similar variations are used widely across Scandinavia. “Sen” in Denmark and Norway; “sson” in Sweden, Finland and Iceland.

-datter – More traditionally in Scandinavian culture as you go back generations, you may see women being given a separate suffix, which adds another layer of complexity to tracing family history deep into the past. “-datter” in Denmark and Norway, “-dotter” in Sweden and Finland and “-dottir” in Iceland.

-ovna/evna – Sticking with women these two suffixes are the Russian to indicate “daughter of”. So Vladimirovna means “Daughter of Vladimir”.

-ich/ovich/evich – …And these are the male equivalent in Russsian. So Ivanovich means “son of Ivan”. There are many other examples as one looks country by country – it is without doubt a strong theme in naming custom around the world.

Patronymic family history in action

While there is plenty a McArthur or McNolty spread around English speaking countries like the USA and Australia, it is a bit more unusual to find a Mac Allistair as a multi-generational Argentinian.

But that is exactly what Liverpool and World Cup winning star Alexis Mac Allistair, son of Carlos Mac Allistair, is. Football website FourFourTwo reported an interesting family history piece to identify his family’s Scottish and Irish roots dating all the way back to the 1800s in Fife, and to a cottage in Donabate in north Co. Dublin.

Other surnames with geographical clues

There are plenty of other surnames that don’t have this classical patronymic or matronymic structure, but still contain big clues as to where family history may lie. Let’s go with a fictional character as an example this time, Reg Holdsworth.

Soap fans will recognise Reg as one of Weatherfield’s finest in Coronation Street. And while this is Manchester based, so more Lancashire and Cheshire, Reg’s name suggests looking across the Pennines to delve into his family history.

That is because Holdsworth is very Yorkshire – according to Ancestry.com a habitational name from Holdsworth in Ovenden.

More challenging cases?

Researching family history is full of twists and turns, and you won’t always get such a head start as a surname with a major pointer as to where to look next.

In fact, how about no surname at all!

This Guardian article details the interesting case of Margaret Sandra, who renounced her surname, indeed any surname, to prove her independence from men. She tells an intriguing tale, but good luck to the family historian in two hundred years’ time who embarks on this case. 😆

Do you want to know your family history?

Whether it is an unusual name, an anecdote that has been passed down the generations, war medals or an old portrait, there are many reasons why you might start taking a deeper interest in your family’s history. If you have hit a dead end, or just don’t have the time, we are professionals and have more than one or two tricks up our sleeve for doing a full research project.

Read more about our family history service and get in touch today.

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