THE HISTORY OF NAMES
For many generations, names have
served us like a fingerprint, a basic clue to our personality
and past. Awareness of naming practices can help us
trace our families back to a village or a place. It
can tell us their likely occupation, or even give an
idea about what our ancestors looked like.
The story of surnames dates back
thousands of years and is called the study of onomastics.
The first known people to introduce
surnames were the Chinese. It is said that the Emperor
Fushi decreed the use of surnames, or family names,
about 2852 BC
In early times, the Romans had only
one name, then later changed to using three names. The
given name stood first and was called a "praenomen."
This was followed by the "nomen" which designates the
gens, or clan. The last name designates the family and
is known as the "cognomen". As the Roman Empire began
to decline, family names became confused and single
names again became customary.
During the early Middle Ages, people
were referred to by a single given name, but gradually
the custom of adding another name as a way to distinguish
individuals gained popularity. Certain distinct traits
became commonly used as a part of this practice. For
instance the place of birth, a descriptive characteristic,
the person's occupation, or the use of the Father's
In Italy, the Venetian aristocracy
developed the use of surnames around the 10th century.
Crusaders returning from the Holy Land took note of
this custom, and as the need to distinguish individuals
became more important, it was soon introduced into the
rest of Europe. By the 12th century, the use of a second
name had become widespread but did not apply to families,
nor were they hereditary. Hereditary names advanced
slowly over a period of several hundreds of years.
In the 1370's the word "surname"
was beginning to appear in legal documents, and had
begun to establish a significant influence. Government
became increasingly a matter of written record and required
identification of people for the levying of taxation
and other civil records.
By about 1450, most people of whatever
social rank had a fixed hereditary surname. This surname
identified the family, provided a link with the family's
past, and would preserve its identity in the future.
Many family names were dependent
on the competency and discretion of the writer. The
same name can sometimes be spelled in different ways
even in the same family group.
Family names have evolved in various
ways. They may have originated from a person's surroundings,
job, or the name of an ancestor.
The local house builder, food preparer,
grain grinder and suit maker, would be named respectively:
John Carpenter, John Cook, John Miller and John Taylor.
The blacksmith was called Smith. Every village had its
share of Smiths, Carpenters and Millers but were not
necessarily related to those in the next village.
The John who lived over the hill
became known as John Overhill; the one who dwelled near
a stream might be dubbed John Brook. Many surnames can
be recognised by the termination - son, such as Williamson,
Jackson, etc. Some are indicated by prefixes denoting
"son" such as the Welsh - Ap, the Scots and Irish -
Mac. In Wales, David the son of John tacked "ap" in
front of his Father's name, and David ap John was soon
being called David Upjohn. In Scotland, Gregors descendants
were known as MacGregor and later shortened to Greg,
Gregg, Grag, and many other versions.
An unusually small person might be
labeled Small, Short, Little or Lythe, and a large man
might be named Longfellow, Large, Lang or Long.
Surnames taken from occupations came
later, and those of patronymic origin were the last
to become hereditary. Even though patronymic names have
been in use a long time, they would change with generations:
William's son John would be known as John Williamson,
while his son William would be William Johnson. The
surname Gregg appears to be patronymical in origin although
many surnames have more than one origin.
The spelling in use today may very
well have been different hundreds of years ago, and
you may even know of someone who has changed his or
her family name in recent times. Language variations,
carelessness, and illiteracy compounded the number of
ways a name might have been spelled. Often the man himself
did not know how to spell his own name and the town
clerk spelled the name the way it sounded to him.
Although our last names offer substantial
clues to our family history, first and middle names
can also be valuable in tracing a family tree. Generally
we have first, middle and last names. First names are
called "given" or "Christian" names, because early Christians
changed their pagan first names to Christian names at
The Hebrews contributed biblical
names, which are the earliest personal names on record,
and Christians of the first centuries used Old Testament
Hebrew names. In time, these were abandoned by many
New Testament figures as a way of protesting against
Judaism. Today about one-half of the English-speaking
population have first names from the New Testament such
as Elizabeth, Mary, John and Joseph.
Celtic refers to a family of languages
used in the British Isles dating back to 1000 BC including
Erse, Scottish, Gaelic, Irish Manx, Breton, Cornish
and Welsh. The Celtic languages also gave us names for
personal characteristics. Names of Celtic origin are
almost poetic, such as Kevin meaning "gentle and beloved"
and Morgan meaning "sea dweller."
While today there are many first
names in use, it is worthwhile remembering that in 1545
the Catholic Church made the use of a saint's name compulsory
for baptism, and so most first names were confined to
the John -- and -- Mary tradition. During the Middle
Ages, there were only about twenty common names for
infant boys and girls. And John and Mary were most
frequently used. With few exemptions it also became
usual to name children after their Parents, Grandparents
and close members of the family; hence the repetitions
throughout our family tree of such names as James, William,
John, Matthew and Robert.
In the 1600s, the Protestants rejected
anything associated with Catholicism, and so again,
they reintroduced names from the Old Testament, such
as Elijah, Priscilla and Joshua.
Middle names were not used until
the 15th century when nobility used a second "first"
name as a status symbol. But second names in general
did not become widespread for many years.
An interesting tradition, particularly
in the north of England and Scotland, was to include
the maiden surnames of Mothers and Grandmothers as 'second'
or 'middle' names, and this can be identified throughout
our family history in the names of Denholm, Seaton,
Fletcher, Paton, Perry and Doyle.
Often we found record of more than
one child in a family having been given the same name,
which can be somewhat confusing when trying to identify
ones ancestors. Usually it was because an older sibling
had died in childhood, and the name was reused either
in memory of the first child or in tribute to a prominent
family member. Typical was the case in which my Grandparents
named three daughters Catherine Seaton Gregg.
In the traditional Scottish naming
pattern, used almost religiously until the 19th century,
the pattern of naming a child was as follows:
The 1st son was usually named after the father's
The 2nd son was usually named after the mother's
The 3rd son was usually named after the father
The 1st daughter was usually named after the mother's
The 2nd daughter was usually named after the
The 3rd daughter was usually named
after the mother