How to Solve Your Family History Using Your Surname Meaning

Do you know what your last name means? You’ve had it since the day you were born and you probably read it, write it, and say it out loud almost every single day, but sometimes a name can be so familiar to you that you never stop and think about what it really means.

Sure, you might be a Baker or a Smith and you’ve never had to wonder about the literal translation of your family name, but whether it’s a recognizable word or has a less obvious origin, one thing all surnames have in common is that they can be a key piece of information when it comes to tracing your roots and uncovering your family history. Many families have lost knowledge about their past because of immigration or after older generations passed away.

You may not speak the same language your great-grandparents spoke, and your surname might not have the same meaning to you that it did to them. If you’re curious about your family history, however, there’s never been a better time to delve into genealogical research and seek out answers to your questions about where they came from.

There are lots of excellent resources on the web for finding information about your ancestry and connecting with distant relatives, and one great way to start the journey into your family tree is by finding out exactly what your surname means. Here are four big questions you might have about your family’s origins that your surname can help you figure out.

What profession was my family known for?

Surnames, as they exist today, started to gain widespread use in the Middle Ages, and many people took their surnames from the work they did. Sometimes it’s obvious what kind of work your surname refers to, but some professions and the words used to describe them have fallen out of use in modern times.

If you’re a Fletcher, your forebears probably made arrows for a living, and if your last name is Reeves, you’re most likely descended from a medieval lawman: a shire reeve, or sheriff. If your surname is a different language than the one you speak, you might not know what profession it references, but it’s easy to look up translations and find out!

What region or town did my family come from?

Many surnames are derived from the names of places or geographical features, and that can help you narrow down the specific region your family came from. Some families derive their surname from the village or town they lived in, and generic place-based surnames can provide useful clues, too.

The surname “Lake” on its own might not tell you much, but if you know the general area your ancestors lived in, that might narrow it down considerably if there’s only one body of water nearby! Even surnames that don’t directly relate to regional names can help you find your ancestral home—census records and surname databases can show correlations between particular surnames and the places where they’re most frequently found.

When did my family emigrate?

One thing about surnames is that it’s often the case that the way they’re spelled today isn’t the way they used to be spelled. Worrying about standardized spelling is a modern concern that probably wouldn’t have been much concern to your ancestors, who might have had different branches of the same family that spelled their shared surname in different ways. Even in more recent times, clerks, clergy, and immigration officials would frequently record names based on how they sounded when spoken, not bothering to confirm how they were supposed to be spelled.

That can be good news for your genealogical research when you can trace an idiosyncratic spelling to a particular record, and knowing that two very different-looking surnames might, in fact, share a common origin can help you find connections to distant relatives you might have in other countries.

Who are my notable ancestors?

In many cultures, patronymic or matronymic surnames that are based on the name of a particular ancestor are common. While it’s not always a given that you’ll be able to identify this ancestor (it’s a safe bet that every Williamson doesn’t owe their existence to the same William!), some family and clan names do tie back to a notable founder, and if you share a surname with a noble house or manor, there’s a good chance you’ve got some royal blood in your veins.

You can find all sorts of helpful resources and guides to surname meanings on the web, and while your particular surname might not reveal the answers to every question you have about your family’s history, it’s sure to be a key piece of anyone’s genealogical puzzle. If you’ve always wondered where you came from and who you’re descended from, start digging into the secrets your surname holds. You might be surprised at how much you can discover.