Origin of surnames

Surnames identify us as members of a family. Along with the first name, surnames provide us with a unique identity. While our first name has to do with who we are, our surnames tell where we come from. It is thanks to surnames that we can learn about our family history, our ancestors. Surnames allow us to trace our origins, and that is why they are so important.

Knowing the origin of surnames is something that always catches our attention, since we feel linked to those who have carried our surnames before us. Knowing where a surname comes from, how it originated and who may have been its first bearers is something that brings us closer to our roots, while allowing us to investigate about our past and that of our lineage.

What is a surname?

The surname consists of the anthroponymic name of the people, which identify the family. As an anthroponym is known as the complete designator element that identifies a person from the rest. This is a necessity that has been present in most human cultures since the existence of human beings. In the case of surnames, they identify the bearer as belonging to a specific family.

Antroponyms before surnames

Before the existence of what we know as states, the anthroponym was just the proper name of the person. Often this had some descriptive or symbolic meaning. The abandonment of nomadic societies led humans to settle permanently in one place.

These settlements, along with advances in agriculture and animal husbandry, led to an increase in population at specific points. This increase in the number of individuals brought the need for hierarchy, and also the need to have, at the very least, a given name.

The establishment of a hierarchy also meant that those in the upper strata of these societies had to be recognized as belonging to a specific family, which gave rise to what we would today consider the first surnames, or family names.

Origin of the anthroponyms, the first surnames

The vast majority of anthroponyms are believed to derive historically from common names. Despite this in many societies the original meaning of the anthroponym is unknown. Thus, in many Western societies an etymological study is needed to try to find the origin of surnames, although many of them respond to certain patterns or 'formulas' with which surnames used to be created.

The need for all people to have at least one surname derives from the Middle Ages, a time when the flourishing of the cities, and with them the bureaucracy, forces the identification of individuals, beyond their own name.

The study of the origin of surnames

The study of the origin of surnames is something that onomastic etymology is responsible for, but also genealogy and heraldry. These are studies of great interest in the field of social sciences, as they allow us to learn more about social changes, migrations and the interaction that has taken place during history between different societies.

Thus, finding the presence of certain anthroponyms originating from one language among the speakers of another can point to the incorporation of people from one linguistic group into another, as well as the influence of one cultural group on another.

As an example of the above we can find that in Spanish, the presence of names of Hebrew origin is due to the influence of the Judeo-Christian religion on the Latin speakers who inhabited the Iberian Peninsula and who gave rise to Castilian. However, it is also possible to find names of Germanic origin, and this would be due to the incorporation of people of Visigothic origin to the Hispano-Roman populations of ancient Hispania.

Origin of surnames in different countries

Despite the fact that having a given name and one or more surnames is something that occurs in most societies today and the exceptions are really very rare, the surnames for the common population were established at different times in history for different cultures. Similarly, the origin of the surnames diverge from one place to another, although they maintain in common that they are the part of the name of a person in which identifies the family to which it belongs.

Origin of surnames in the West

In general terms, and for most of the population, it should be noted that until the Middle Ages it was customary to use only first names. In order to differentiate between two people with the same name, it was customary to add an indication that referred to the place where the person lived, to his work, or to a characteristic feature that allowed to distinguish that person. In this way it was possible to distinguish between two people named Pedro, calling one Pedro the miller and the other Pedro the white (because of his abundant gray hair).

This custom was to call one Pedro the miller and the other Pedro the white (because of his abundant gray hair).

This custom was maintained at the time when the surnames were becoming more and more necessary, becoming in many occasions these 'nicknames' in the surname of those people, which as such, were passed from father to son, although the son of Pedro no longer had gray hair. Nowadays it is still possible to find the surname Molinero and derived surnames such as Molina.

I should add that it was not uncommon to change a surname for religious or political reasons or as a way of hiding surnames of Judaic or Moorish origin. Sometimes the bearers changed their surname completely, at others, they 'Christianized' the original surname, in order to hide its provenance.

Origin of Spanish surnames

It is very common to find in Spanish surnames ending in -ez, such as González, Martínez or Sánchez. These types of endings mean 'son of', and are an indication that an ancestor's given name was Gonzalo, Martín or Sancho. Thus, their sons were formerly called Pedro, son of Gonzalo; Rodrigo, son of Martín or Alberto, son of Sancho, respectively. This is a common origin of surnames, and they are known as patronymics. This is something that occurs in other cultures and languages.

Patronymic origin.

Origin of patronymic surnames in other languages

As an example of the formation of patronymic surnames, we find that in Scotland it is common to use the prefixes Mac- or Mc-. These Scottish prefixes mean "son", for example, "MacPherson" is the son of Pherson.

To form the patronymic in Semitic languages we find that in Hebrew the word ben means 'son of', as in Ben Gurion, Ben Yehuda. Similarly, in Arabic 'Ibn' is used, as in Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Zaydun, Ibn Hayyan. And we also come across 'Bar' in Aramaic, which has the same meaning as the above, as in Bar Kokhba.

We also find 'Bar' in Aramaic, which has the same meaning as the above, as in Bar Kokhba.

If we move to northern Europe we can find that in Germanic languages the endings -sohn (German), -son (English, Norwegian, Swedish) and -sen (Danish) are frequent: 'Petersen' is son of Peter (Peter), 'Mendelssohn' is son of Mendel and 'Gustafson' is son of Gustaf. In Icelandic one can also find the ending -dóttir used for 'daughter.'

In Icelandic.

Continuing in northern Europe, we have that in Anglo-Normans the patronymic of filiation is usually made with the prefix Fitz. In Ireland it is common to use the O' (Os for male descendant and Au for grandson), as in O'Sullivan, son of Sullivan.

In the case of Slavic languages the usual for the formation of the patronymic surname are the endings -(o)vich or -vic and -ov which also indicate filiation in males. For females the endings -ovna or -evna usually indicate 'daughter of'. Thus, brothers and sisters do not have the same surname, since the ending indicates their sex. Peter's sons and daughters would thus be called Petrovich and Petrovna, respectively. Something similar happens in Georgian, in which we have -shvili for 'son' and -adze for daughter.

If we move to Greece we find that in Modern Greek there are the endings -poulos (-πουλος), -akis (-άκης) and -adis (-άδης), among others. The most common ancient Greek ending for these cases was -idēs (-ίδης). This has come hispanicized down to the present day as -ida. For example, Zeus was also called Cronid, because he was 'son of Cronus' and Achilles, son of Peleus, was known as Pellida.

To end with examples, we find in Armenian we have the endings -ian or -yan. Thus "Krikorian" is the son of Krikor (Gregory).

Other origins of surnames

We have seen that most surnames tend to have patronymic origins, and that this is something that occurs in one way or another in different societies. However, the origin of surnames, as we have already pointed out, can be other, and below we are going to see the main formulas that gave rise to surnames.

Surnames of toponymic origin

Surnames of toponymic origin are those that derive from the name of the place where the person or family associated with the surname lived, came from or owned land. Many surnames of toponymic origin are preceded by the preposition "de", "del", "de la" or are simply gentilicism.

Surnames of toponymic origin abound in Spanish. As a curiosity it should be noted that these form almost 80% of Basque surnames, and that these used to follow not a name, but a nickname. We have the example of 'Otxoa de Zabalegi', that is, 'Otxoa, a medieval proper name meaning 'the wolf', from Zabalegi'. This type of surnames are much more varied than the patronymic ones, even though they are carried by fewer people than the first ones.

This type of surnames are much more varied than the patronymic ones, even though they are carried by fewer people than the first ones.

These types of surnames are also those that come from geographical accidents, or things of nature, such as 'del Val', 'Laguna' or 'Montemayor'. In short, they are also the surnames that come from everything that the human being knows on the face of the Earth.

Surnames of common origin

These are surnames that have their origin in common names that name the flora, fauna or peculiarities existing in a region. They can be surnames that come from trees, such as 'Olmo' or 'Perales', flowers such as 'de la Rosa', animals such as 'Aguilar' or 'Cordero' or common places such as 'Fuentes' or 'Lacalle'

Surnames with origin in trades

Surnames that owe their origin to professions or trades are those that derive from the trade or profession that was exercised, in principle, by the person or family associated with the surname, which gave it its origin. Here we find surnames like 'Herrera' or 'Cantero', but also integrate this type of surnames those that designate conditions on what is a person, like 'Duke', 'Marquis', 'Friar', 'Runner' or 'Soldier'.

Surnames with nickname origins

Surnames originating in nicknames correspond to those that refer to some characteristic identifying feature of the person with whom the surname is supposed to have originated. This is the case of surnames such as 'Alegre', 'Cortés', 'Delagdo' or 'Castaño'.

Surnames whose origin is related to the circumstances of birth

The origin of these surnames is found in the circumstances of the moment of birth of the person who first bore it in the family. This section includes those surnames that refer to the month of birth, the saint that was celebrated on that day, etc.

Also included in this category are the surnames with which newborns of unknown parents were identified, in most cases with some religious reference. This is the case of surnames such as 'Abril', 'de Dios', 'Temprano', 'San Miguel' or 'Expósito'.

The importance of knowing the origin of surnames

The curiosity we feel about the origin of surnames derives from the human being's own need to answer the universal questions that have always gripped him. Knowing who we are, where we come from and how our origin can influence the current circumstances of our lives is something that will always trouble human beings.

Surnames can tell us a lot about our history because they speak of us not only as human beings, but as belonging to a particular lineage. Our ties with our ancestors can be strengthened thanks to a greater and better knowledge of the origin of our surnames. Thanks to this, it is possible to trace our family tree, but also to understand how the family history was and even to speculate on the influence that some events of the past may have had on our present.

The origin of the surnames can help to uncover what were the migratory movements of some families, the incidence of professions, places of origin ... But it is also possible to get to know ancestors who may have had some relationship with the nobility, and thanks to this, with specific historical facts.

On this website, in constant revision and growth, we aim to satisfy the desire that many people have to know the origin of our surname. We want to help those who want to know more about their surname and surnames in general, so that they have the necessary information to help them carry out that work of research and self-knowledge that allows them to answer many questions about themselves and their ancestors and lineage, but also about any surname that we can trace the way to its origin.