How Surnames Can Help In Your Research

What does your last name mean and how can it help you with your genealogy?

In last week’s “Family History Detectives” class to my students, we talked about surnames and how they developed. I used their last names as examples of how that surname could have come about. Needless to say, they were intrigued.  

The application of surnames did not come about until about 1066 during the Norman Conquest. The population was growing and the need to distinguish people was great. Surnames came from different means.  

For instance, from what people did, “Cook”, “Farmer”, “Carpenter”, but they could also come from where they lived, “Hill”, “Woods”, “Ford”, or like mine, Logan, Gaelic lagán (a little hollow), a diminutive form of lag (a hollow): hence, “dweller at a little hollow.”

They could also be based on common names, so the son of John would be “Johnson”. Lars’ daughter would be “Larsdoetter”. Or, Joseph the Tailor became “Joseph Taylor”. John, the son of James, became “John Jameson” and so on. In Scotland, the prefix “Mac” meant paternity as well. MacGregor means Gregor’s son.  

Names could also be descriptive such as “White”, “Strong”, “Young”, “Black”, or “Long” and “Longfellow”. Or, geographical, such as “London”, “Street”, “West”, and “Holland”. A lot of Irish and some Scottish surnames came from the names of legendary clans such as “Abercromby”, Agnew”, Buchanan”, “Stewart”, “Kelly”, “Duffy”, “Wallace”, and “Quinn”.  

There are even surnames that have a religious factor, “Abbey”, “Bishop”, “Deacon”, “Parsons”, and “Sexton”.  

Every country and even places within a country have their surname practices. Of course, now names do not change as much as they used to.  

You will find a lot of places online that want to sell you a Coat of Arms with your surname or a plaque, but make sure you do your homework first. How do you know what’s real? Stick to the most reputable sites like Ancestry,, or And, for Irish and Scottish names, they have many clan sites that have researched for you.

The most important thing about studying your family history and surnames is not to get hung up on an exact spelling. Names evolved and changed over the years due to travel, language, and understanding. Be flexible and understand that the name Stephanz could also be Steffens, Stefanc, and Steffans.  

Make sure you check out Ancestry’s surname message boards. Here you can see different spellings of the same name and connect with others researching the same ancestors you are.  

Surnames have now become standard practice, but it behooves you to learn the origin of your surname. To know what your ancestors naming practices are, and were. It just may lead you to your roots. 

Ancestry DNA can also connect you to others with the surname you are researching as well as 23andMe.

Some books that may be helpful are:

Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History

Surnames of Ireland

Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings, Second Edition, Revised

A Dictionary of English Surnames (Oxford Paperback Reference S)

Dictionary of German Names

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