THE BLOG

What Your Last Name Can Tell You About Your Ancestors

04/01/2014 05:30 EDT | Updated 06/01/2014 05:59 EDT

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Have you ever thought about your last name and where it might have come from? It's hard for us today to believe that there was a time, not that long ago, when many people didn't have a last name.

So, where did last names come from, and were they assigned or randomly selected?

In fact, there are a number of ways your ancestors might have first acquired the surname you currently use.

1. Patronymic

One type of surname, like mine, is patronymic, where the last name means "son of" plus the father's first name. So I can safely assume that at some point in my family tree, many generations ago, there was an Andrew, who had a son. Andrew's son most likely spent his life known as just that, Andrew's son, which evolved over the course of his life into Anderson. Alternatively, the first "Andrew's son" in my family may have worshiped Scottish patron saint St. Andrew on a very personal level.

2. Occupation

Many surnames evolved based on descriptions of the family. For example, a surname could describe a family's occupation, something we can see today in many names like Smith, Miller, Tanner, Potter, Abbott, Baker, Carter, Fuller, the list goes on. And not just for English names, others like Mercier (trader or mercer), Hammerschmidt (smith, owner of a forge), Reznik (butcher) and more are derived from occupations.

3. Social status

A name can reflect the social status of the first person who took that name. Knight and King are good examples, and likely described people of high birth, or those who were natural leaders.

4. Physical description

Physical characteristics also played a role, which can be seen in names like Short or Armstrong, which describe height and strength, or White or Brown, which likely described hair colour or complexion. Fairweather and Merryweather could also describe a person's temperament.

5. Location

A surname could also describe the area where a family was based. Is your last name Shore, Banks or Hill? If so, try and guess where your ancestors probably lived! If your last name is an old city name, chances are very good that you have noble roots, as your surname may have been derived from an aristocratic title.

You can also learn about where your names are most common by looking online. I discovered that my name is common in northern England and Scotland, as St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland. Its variations are common throughout Europe, in iterations like Andersen or Andreychyn. I learned this using Ancestry.ca's last name finder, which provides very interesting general information about surnames.

When you start to think about it, your last name might say much more than you realize about the lives of your ancestors.