In most countries around the world, the use of a surname is an important part of determining one’s lineage. However, there are some countries which do not use these family or last names at all. These can be either patronymic surnames meaning that they are passed on by the father such as in most westernised countries or they can be matronymic surnames meaning they are passed on through the mother such as the case in countries in parts of Asia. Of course they do not have to even be the name of the father or mother but can be from someone in the distant past of the family. Irregardless though, the use of these surnames are as a means of determining lineage but they were not formalised until the 1700s which is why it can become a difficult task tracing someone’s heritage through this time period.
Common surnames like Wilson are patronyms meaning that at the time of formalisation, the “son of William” became Wilson. This is still seen today but not in the family names. It is not uncommon for the first name of the father to be given as the middle name for the son. Of course this could also be the grandfather or the mother and grandmother in the case of females.
This use of patronyms like Wilson can make tracing your lineage harder or easier. The reason they may become harder is through the migrations that occurred at the turn of the 20th century in which Europeans began a mass exodus into the United States and finding that their names were too complicated to spell or pronounce, the names can get changed during the actual immigration.
To make matters worse you then have common surnames. What makes these common surnames so bad is that such a large portion of the population uses the same surname but have absolutely no remote or distant relationship to one another. Names like Smith and Jones are very common surnames. Taking the surname of Smith for example, and what you have is a surname being given to one based on their occupation.
While patronyms and matronyms are the common concept when it comes to family names, at one point in time a person’s last name was distinguished by their role in society. A blacksmith by profession would become known as a Smith. During the Middle Ages this became a big issue as there were many in the blacksmith profession who would assume the last name of Smith or even Smyth during the formalisation of surnames at the beginning of the Modern Era. Depending on their personal heritage and location at the time, they would have become known as Smith or Smyth. Then upon immigration into another country, they would announce their last name as Smith and irregardless of the spelling the immigration official would have made it official by writing it as “SMITH”.
Furthermore, common surnames also became a part of the migrations as there was a need for fitting in and therefore families would change their name at the point of entry to fit in better. It is completely possible for someone migrating from Northern Europe to have changed their family name completely in order to fit in. Choosing the most popular name they heard about and making it even more popular.
Original Authors: Nick
Edit Update Authors: M.A.Harris
Updated On: 09/03/2009