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Understanding customs used in surnames and given names can help you identify your ancestors in records. Learn to recognize name variations and see clues in names.

Online Tools[edit | edit source]

Surnames[edit | edit source]

Patronymic Surnames[edit | edit source]

A patronymic surname is a surname originated from the given name of the father.

Patronymic names changed with each generation. For example, Hans Petersen was a son of a man named Peter. If Hans had a son Jens, the son was known as Jens Hansen (son of Hans). A daughter Maria might be either Maria Hansen or Maria Hansdotter.

Grammatical Changes in Surnames[edit | edit source]

Gender and grammar can affect surname endings.

Surname Spelling Variations by Dialect[edit | edit source]

Sometimes surname spelling variations are based on dialect (a particular form of a language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group) differences.

Dialect spellings can often give a clue to the origin of the name and even the region where an ancestor lived.

Jewish Surname Customs[edit | edit source]

Before the 1800s, the use of a surname by Jews was left to the discretion of the individual.

Jews followed the custom of using only a given name and the name of the father, such as Isaac, son of Abraham (Isaac ben Abraham). Most Jews did not adopt hereditary family names until required to do so by law.

Surnames Historical Development[edit | edit source]

  • Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as John.
  • As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. John became John the smith, John the son of Matthew, John the short, or John from Heidelberg.
  • At first surnames applied only to one person, not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names became hereditary and were passed on from generation to generation.
  • Surnames developed from several sources. For example:
    • Occupational (based on a person’s trade, such as Carter or Smith)
    • Geographical (based on a person’s residence, such as Drayton or Debenham)
    • Patronymic (based on a person’s father’s name, such as Jones, son of John)
    • Descriptive or nickname (such as Joy or Child)
  • The nobility and wealthy land owners were the first to begin using surnames.
  • Merchants and townspeople then adopted the custom, as did the rural population. This process took two or three centuries.

Surname Changes of Immigrants in the United States[edit | edit source]

As Immigrants moved into English-speaking countries, their surnames were impacted in a variety of ways.

  • Most of the time the surname spelling changed to accommodate the different phonetic spelling in the English language. In other words, the recorder tried to write the name the way he heard it.
  • Surnames may also have been translated outright into English, sometimes with a slight twist.
  • Within the community, such as the local parish, immigrants may continue to use the original name, while at the same time using English-language equivalents when dealing with local government, census takers, and other English speakers.
  • Different branches of the same family may adopt various surname spellings.
  • Prior to 1900, formal surname changes documented in local court records are relatively rare.
  • During the early 20th Century, especially the World War I era, surname changes are recorded more frequently, as immigrants or, more often, their children, tried to adopt more neutral surnames.

Given Names[edit | edit source]

  • If an elder child died young, the parents frequently reused the deceased child's exact name on the next born child of the same gender. This can be a good guide in terms of your research, but it is not an absolute. D'

Naming Pattern[edit | edit source]

Families often used the following pattern for naming children:

Son's Name Daughter's Name
1st father's father 1st mother's mother
2nd mother's father 2nd father's mother
3rd father

3rd mother

4th father's father's father 4th father's father's mother
5th mother's father's father 5th mother's father's mother
6th father's mother's father 6th father's mother's mother

7th mother's mother's father

7th mother's mother's mother

Name Endings[edit | edit source]

Gender and grammar can affect name endings.

Given Names in Foreign Languages[edit | edit source]

Because genealogical records were kept in various languages, you may find your ancestor's name in different languages at different times.

As regions fell under the rule of different countries, the language used in records could change. For example, your great-grandfather's name could be in Latin on his birth record, in French on his marriage record, and in German on his death record. Some given names are often very different when translated into different languages, as shown by the following table.

German Latin French Polish
Albrecht Adalbertus Adalbert Wojciech
Anna Anna Anne Hannah
Elisabeth Elisabetha Isabelle Elżbieta
Franz Franciscus François Franciszek
Georg Georgius Georges Jerzy
Gottlieb Bogumilus Bogomil Bogumił
Johann (Hans) Joannes Jean Jan
Karl Carolus Charles Karol
Katharine Catherina Catherine Katarzyna
Lorenz Laurentius Laurent Wawrzyniec
Ludwig Ludovicus Louis Ludwik
Margareta Margarita Marguerite Małgorzata
Marie Maria Marie Marja
Wilhelm Guilielmus Guillaume Wilhelm

The following online source contains given names translated into 23 different European languages, including English:

  • Janowowa, Wanda, et al. Słownik imion (Dictionary of names). Wrocław, Germany: Zakład Narodowy im Ossolińskich, 1975. (FHL book Ref 940 D4si; film 1181578 item 2; fiche 6,000,839.) Names are listed alphabetically by the Polish name, as the author is Polish. An index at the back gives the Polish form of each name. Use that name to find the 23 translations in the main list.

"Nicknames", Variations on Given Names[edit | edit source]

Many given names have variants and dialectical forms.

A good way to determine naming customs of the area is to study the patterns found in the records of birth/christening, marriages, and burials/deaths. If major changes occur in the naming patterns or form used, that could indicate a ministerial change, perhaps one coming from another area. Several books are available that list variant forms of given names.

For Further Reading[edit | edit source]

FamilySearch Library[edit | edit source]

Additional sources are listed in the FamilySearch Catalog:


References[edit | edit source]

Swahili speakers in eastern Africa. Rwanda, Burundi, some parts of Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique Berber (Amazigh) people of North Africa, including the Tuareg of the Sahara. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, northern Mali, Chewa names are used in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique. Tswana names are used in Botswana and South Africa. Most people in the north of Africa are Muslim and thus tend to use Muslim names. In central and southern Africa, as a result of European colonization, many nations are partially Christian and have French, English or Portuguese as an official language. These regions use European names extensively.