15 May 2007

What is in a name?

Cher and Fabio are unusual in our world. They go by one name. However, a little over four hundred years ago that fact would not have caused comment. Surnames did not come into common use until about 1600.

In England the inhabitants were allowed two names. The only exception to this law was royalty, of course. They could have three.

The law was enforced, and the penalties were severe. For the first offense the offender could be tied to a whipping post and lashed. For the second offense the punishment would be more visible and lasting. He or she would have a body part removed, such as a thumb or an ear. If you were caught a third time, the price was your life. You would be hanged.

There is a court record of one poor man who insisted he had three names. Each time he was brought before the court he received the proscribed sentences until finally he was hanged. I am sure that was a deterrent for others who wanted the prestige of three names.

In the countries of Europe the naming practices differed. In Italy, as you moved from place to place your name changed to reflect where you lived. Also in Europe, if the name had a specific meaning such as tailor or cook it was translated into the new language

As people moved from country to country names changed. This was done most times to fit in better with the natives. A good example of this is in my father-in-law's family. His fourth great-grandfathers' name was William Poston Monroe Scott. This sounds as British as they come, but all is not what it seems. We are fortunate to have a photo copy of this man's journal. In it there is a small notation that his great-grandfather's name was Postonii, and he had emigrated from Italy to England. Without this piece of information we would have reached a dead end.

As people emigrated to America names often changed to become more American in sound and spelling. A good example of this is after World Wars I & II many Americans of German descent and German refugees changed their names to be more American sounding. Others had their name changed for them by workers at such places as Ellis Island. A major point to remember here is names were often spelled phonetically.

Foundlings were given names by the institutions in which they were raised. There is a woman I was helping with her genealogy who related such a story. Her father was a foundling, in England, in the early part of the twentieth century. There were no papers or other identifiers, so he was named by the people at the orphanage. Her paternal line stops with him.

Spellings of surnames change through time. There are several reasons for this. The most common one is literacy. The fact is most of our ancestors did not know how to read and write. So spelling of a surname was left to those who recorded the information, such as tax collectors and census takers. The problem was that many times they were not a lot better educated than our ancestors.

These variations in names lead to the problem of many spellings of the same name. The tax collector may have spelled the name one way and the census taker another, and both records be done in the same year for the same person.

Another reason for spellings to change is family feuds or a family member chooses to step outside the law. Two brothers have a falling-out, or one commits a crime. Then one changes the spelling to distinguish from the other family. This has happened more than most families are comfortable admitting.

No matter what your surname, just remember, the spelling has probably changed in the last four hundred years.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT (SHOULD YOU CHOOSE TO ACCEPT IT): What is the origin of your surname?

I was born a McMillan. The "c" is supposed to have two lines under it, but I can't figure out how to do that.

"The M'millans are one of a number of clans -- including the MacKinnons, the MacQuarries, and the MacPhees -- descended from Airbertach, a Hebridean prince of the old royal house of Moray who according to one account was the great-grandson of King Macbeth." Source

My husband is a Ledgerwood.

"The vast movement of people that followed the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 brought the Ledgerwood family name to the British Isles. Ledgerwood comes from the name of the famous St. Leger.

Spelling variations of this family name include: St.Leger, Leger, Legere, Sallinger, Sellinger, St. Ledger and many more. First found in Kent where Robert St. Leger was granted estates at Ulcombe and became Lord of the Manor of Ulcombe." Source


BBC - History - What's In a Name? Your Link to the Past

BBC - North West Wales Family History - surname history

The etymology and history of surnames

French Surname Meanings & Origins

German Surname Origin & Last Name Meaning

How to Trace the Origin of Your Surname

Irish Coat of Arms and Surname Histories

Italian Surname Meanings

Jewish Surname History & Meanings

The Norman Surname, Origins and Variations

Scottish Surname Meanings & History

Spanish Surname Origin & Last Name Meaning

Surnames - History & Origins of Names

© Deborah Brent 2005
Revised and updated May 2007