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About surnames


Investigating family trees almost inevitably raises one's interest in surnames.   I have discovered something of the origins of many of the surnames of our English and Irish based family members, though some are proving elusive.  The gaps will be filled as we find out more.

Surnames first occurred in most European countries between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries.   However, in Scandinavia people generally did not have surnames until they were forced to adopt them in the 1830's.   And most people were so unimaginative that they adopted patronymic surnames - just think of all the ----sons and ----sens in the Swedish soccer team!  

In England, it was the Normans who drove the development of surnames.  For them, the adoption of a surname became not just a necesssity as society and the legal system became more sophisticated, it was also a symbol of ownership, possessions, pride and greed, and would allow the family name to be carried down though the centuries.  

The spelling of surnames is often inconsistent.  The situation gets worse as we go further back in time.   Quite often the variations are so bad that it is unclear whether they are still the same surname.   Again, frequently I will find people having several different spellings on documents relating to them over their lifetime.   On this site, I have tried to use the current spelling of a surname in most cases, which means that often I record an event under a slightly different name than that used on a record.   Sometimes however I have felt it necessary to use the earlier spelling.  It is hard to be consistent!   For this reason, when searching for someone, it is often better to use just that part of a surname that you think may be common to all spellings.   You quickly get a nose for surnames that are going to be troublesome, after you have been doing family research for some time.

See these further pages for more about surnames:

Sources of surnames Click here  to learn about the most common sources of English surnames.
Our surnames Click here  to see the surnames of Irene's and Dave's ancestors, and the other ancestors or our children and grandchildren.
Misspelt surnames Click here  to see the surnames in our trees whose spellings are most variable.
 Surname spelling

Surname spelling and pronunciation has evolved over centuries, with our current generation often unaware of the origin and evolution of their surnames. Among the humbler classes of European society, and especially among the illiterate majority, individuals had little choice but to accept the mistakes of officials, clerks, and priests who officially bestowed upon them new versions of their surnames, just as they had meekly accepted the surnames which they were born with. In North America, the linguistic problems confronting immigration officials at Ellis Island in the 19th century were legendary as a prolific source of Anglicisation. In the United States such processes of official and accidental change caused Bauch to become Baugh, Micsza to become McShea, Siminowicz to become Simmons, etc. Many immigrants deliberately Anglicised or changed their surnames upon arrival in the New World, so that Mlynar became Miller, Zimmerman became Carpenter, and Schwarz became Black.

Regardless of the current spelling of your surname, its spelling and pronunciation have quite possibly evolved over the centuries. To take just one example in Dave's family, the surname Slater has been recorded as Slayter, Slaytor, Slaiter, Slaitor.  In some cases, the current generation may be aware of the change.  However, in the main, changes of surname occurred so long ago that people are not aware of the original spelling and pronunciation.