What’s in A Name

What’s in a Name?

In Britain and Europe, surnames began to be used from about the 11 Century onwards. The purpose of such introduction was to make administration, particularly the collection of taxes, more efficient. The spelling of a surname has changed over the centuries; as families moved around local dialect affected the pronunciation and the spelling of a name. Some countries were much slower than others in adopting surnames.

Origins of surnames

Locational – derived from a place name
Topographical – from a geographic feature
Occupational – from an occupation, or associated with an occupation
Patronymic – related to the father
Characteristic – related to a physical or psychological feature of a person; a nickname

Change of surname

People sometimes change their surname, which can confuse a researcher. There could be a number of reasons for such a change.
Avoidance – of creditors, criminal proceedings, family
To blend in, in a new country
By default – a new name given by officials on entering a new country for example
To perpetuate a family name that has no male heirs
To change an unpleasant or embarrassing name

Surname Maps

A number of distribution maps have been produced and are available on the internet – at a cost. These depict the distribution of surnames, prepared from past census information and electoral registers and make it possible to see how surnames have moved around over the centuries. Do a Google search for Surname Maps (Country you are interested in).


South African Surnames by Eric Rosenthal pub. Howard Timmims 1965
Die Groot Afrikaanse Familienaamboek by C. Pama pub. Human & Rousseau 1983
The Tartans of the Scottish Clans by James D. Scarlett pub. Collins 1975
A Dictionary of English Surnames by P H Reaney pub. OUP
The Surnames of Scotland by George F Black

Web sites