The Secret Stories Behind 10 Last Names

JL Matthews

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Each of us has a name.

We all know where our first name came from--it was given to us at birth.

But what about our last name--our surname?

Where did it come from, and what might it reveal about our ancestors?

Let's examine five common (and five not-as-common) American surnames to see what they reveal.

Smith

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The most common US surname, there are over 2.7 million Smiths in America. 'Smith' is a quintessential example of an occupational surname, stemming from the medieval craft of metal-working.

"English: occupational name for a worker in metal, from Middle English smith (Old English smið, probably a derivative of smitan 'to strike, hammer'). Metal-working was one of the earliest occupations for which specialist skills were required, and its importance ensured that this term and its equivalents were perhaps the most widespread of all occupational surnames in Europe. Medieval smiths were important not only in making horseshoes, plowshares, and other domestic articles, but above all for their skill in forging swords, other weapons, and armor. This is the most frequent of all American surnames; it has also absorbed, by assimilation and translation, cognates and equivalents from many other languages (for forms, see Hanks and Hodges 1988)."
Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press via Ancestry.com

Johnson

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The second most common surname in America, Johnson is a patronymic name (a surname derived from the father's given name [the son of John]).

"English and Scottish: patronymic from the personal name John. As an American family name, Johnson has absorbed patronymics and many other derivatives of this name in continental European languages. (For forms, see Hanks and Hodges 1988.)"
Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press via Ancestry.com

Williams

Williams is the third most common surname in the US. Other surnames with similarities to Williams include: Williamson, Mcwilliams, Williamsen, Willis, Gilliam, Guilliams

"English (also very common in Wales): patronymic from William."
Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press via Ancestry.com

Jones

The fourth most common name in America, Jones is another patronymic name derived from 'Jon'.

"English and Welsh: patronymic from the Middle English personal name Jon(e) (see John). The surname is especially common in Wales and southern central England. In North America this name has absorbed various cognate and like-sounding surnames from other languages. (For forms, see Hanks and Hodges 1988)."
Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press

Brown

Although fifth on the list of most common US surnames, there are still more than 1.7 million Americans named Brown. The surname derives from a personal trait, such as hair color, eye color, or complexion.

"English, Scottish, and Irish: generally a nickname referring to the color of the hair or complexion, Middle English br(o)un, from Old English brun or Old French brun. This word is occasionally found in Old English and Old Norse as a personal name or byname. Brun- was also a Germanic name-forming element. Some instances of Old English Brun as a personal name may therefore be short forms of compound names such as Brungar, Brunwine, etc. As a Scottish and Irish name, it sometimes represents a translation of Gaelic Donn. As an American family name, it has absorbed numerous surnames from other languages with the same meaning."
Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press

Meyer

There are German, Dutch, Hebrew, and Irish variations of the surname 'Meyer'. The name shares a root with the modern words, 'mayor' and 'major'.

"German and Dutch: from Middle High German meier, a status name for a steward, bailiff, or overseer, which later came to be used also to denote a tenant farmer, which is normally the sense in the many compound surnames formed with this term as a second element. Originally it denoted a village headman (ultimately from Latin maior' greater', 'superior'). Jewish (Ashkenazic): from the Yiddish personal name Meyer (from Hebrew Meir' enlightener', a derivative of Hebrew or 'light'). Irish: Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Meidhir, from meidhir' mirth'. Danish: variant spelling of Meier 3."
Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press

Chase

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If your Surname is Chase, you likely have an ancestor who was a skilled hunter of one variety or another.

"Metonymic occupational name for a huntsman, or rather a nickname for an exceptionally skilled huntsman, from Middle English chase 'hunt' (Old French chasse, from chasser 'to hunt', Latin captare)"
Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press via Ancestry.com

Bailey

The surname 'Bailey' derives either from an occupation or a place. The words 'bailiff' and 'bail' come from the same root.

"Status name for a steward or official, Middle English bail(l)i (Old French baillis, from Late Latin baiulivus, an adjectival derivative of baiulus 'attendant', 'carrier' 'porter'). topographic name for someone who lived by the outer wall of a castle, Middle English bail(l)y, baile' outer courtyard of a castle', from Old French bail(le) 'enclosure', a derivative of bailer 'to enclose', a word of unknown origin. This term became a place name in its own right, denoting a district beside a fortification or wall, as in the case of the Old Bailey in London, which formed part of the early medieval outer wall of the city. habitational name from Bailey in Lancashire, named with Old English beg 'berry' + leah' woodland clearing'. Anglicized form of French Bailly."
Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press via Ancestry.com

Butler

If you're a Butler, you may have an ancestor who served as a cupbearer or a domestic servant.

"English and Irish: from a word that originally denoted a wine steward, usually the chief servant of a medieval household, from Norman French butuiller (Old French bouteillier, Latin buticularius, from buticula' bottle'). In the large households of royalty and the most powerful nobility, the title came to denote an officer of high rank and responsibility, only nominally concerned with the supply of wine, if at all. Anglicized form of French Boutilier. Jewish (from Poland and Ukraine): occupational name for a bottle maker, from Yiddish butl 'bottle' + the agent suffix -er."
Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press

Marner

Do you have a love for the sea? Maybe it's in your genes. The surname Marner derives from the Germanic word for sailor.

"English (of Norman origin) and German: occupational name for a sailor (see Mariner), from Anglo-Norman French mariner, Middle High German marnære 'seaman'."
Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press

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JL Matthews is a writer with interests spanning history, humor, tv/film, parenting, and more. His work has appeared in numerous publications, and he is a 6x Top Writer on Medium. Follow him on News Break, Medium, and Twitter for updates and latest work.

Raleigh, NC
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