Monday, February 13, 2012

Where to Start: Family Names

As a rule of thumb, most experts on family history would advise anyone interested in genealogy to always begin with what one already has: his first and last names. In many instances, people will already get a colorful history of his family just by working on his given and last names. Often, the first or middle names are derived from a relative or direct ancestor. For instance, in my maternal grandmother’s family, it was always the practice to name the first child born after a death of an elder after the deceased. This practice has roots to antiquities; families tend to give a newborn child the name of a recently deceased ancestor to “keep the memories of the dead loved one” alive.

Surnames also have a lot of stories to tell. In fact, most family history write-ups almost always begin with surname histories. A study of one’s surname gives one an idea where the surname started, what the surname’s original form may have been, where the surname is now located, and what possible derivations come from the name.

Surnames developed in an almost predictive way: the first name is usually appellated with a description of the place, origin, or characteristic of the first bearer. Examples: a man named Jose who lived near a coastline would be known as Jose de Acosta, or Jose from the coast. Most often than not, this would soon be simplified to Jose Acosta; John, the son of Peter, would soon be known as John Peterson, and so on.

Most modern-day surnames are any of the following: patronymics, that is, names that designate the bearer as “a son of” or “a descendant of” the first bearer of the surname. In Russia, patronymics usually end with the suffix –ov: Romanov, “son or descendant of Roman”, Semyonov, “son or descendant of Semyon or Simon”, and Alexandrovitch, “son of descendant of Alexander”. In Spain and other Spanish-speaking areas, patronymics usually end with –ez, such as Alvarez, “son or descendant of Alvaro”, Rodriguez, “son or descendant of Rodrigo”, and Martinez, “son or descendant of Martin”. Some patronymics do not end in –ez, such as Manuel and Agustin. Other patronymics include English names like Williams and Johns; European names that end with –son or –sen such as Jansen or Peterson; and Islamic designations such as “bin” or “ibn”, like Abdullah bin Saud, which means “Abdullah, son of Saud”.

Another popular surname type are habitational or locational or place-names. These surnames are derived from any of the following: the original hometown of the first bearer of the surname, like Martin de Aragon, indicating “Martin, from the Spanish province of Aragon”; the common landmark found in the area from which the first bearer comes from, such as Angela Wood, which might indicate that “Angela lived near or in the woods”; the common flora in the area, such as Espina, which would indicate an abundance of thorny bushes or plants in the place where the original bearer of the name comes from; or the common fauna in the area, like Gallos, indicative of the presence of many roosters in the area.

Occupational surnames are also common types of surnames, which would describe the trade or profession of the first carrier of the name. Such names generally developed in the same way as place-names started. Examples are Gunther Schmidt, which would mean that Gunther was originally a smith. Spanish surnames like Pescadero (“fisherman”), Labrador (“farmer”), and Herrero (“blacksmith”), are common Spanish occupational surnames.

The fourth surname category is descriptive or characteristic of the original bearer, such as Rufus or Red, which would mean the first bearer probably had bright, red hair. Others would include, other than colors, body structure, such as Slim; social status like King or Regis, which may indicate noble or royal birth or simply wealth, and so much more.

Other surnames have dual or even more origins. The surname Lucero, for example, which means brilliance or bright star, may indicate the first bearer as having red, flaming hair. It may also be occupational, as the early lamp-lighters were given the title “El Lucero”. Other surnames may also simply be common words used in day-to-day language which have evolved through time. Many surnames in the Philippines, for example, are Spanish words or adjectives.


Taken from KAGIKAN: Primer on Filipino Genealogy written by this author.


  1. This segment on family surnames is extremely helpful as I begin my Filipino research. Thank you so much!