By: Jim Brewster

From Scandinavia to India, dive into the world of patronymic traditions and their influence on familial identity and genealogical research.

In most cultures, people have multiple names that identify aspects of their lineage. They have first names (also called given names or sometimes Christian names) or personal identifiers unique to them, but they also have names that refer to their family, kinship, clan, or affiliation.

Patronymics is one system of identifying those connections. The term is a combination of the Greek words for father (πατήρ or patēr) and name (ὄνομα or onoma), with the suffix “pertaining to” (-ικός or -ikos). It is a modification of the first name of one’s father or other paternal ancestor. A related system called matronymics followed the maternal line, though this is less common.

Generally speaking, a patronym is an addition to the first name that identifies one’s father. For example, William’s son, Erik, might be referred to as Erik Williamson. Erik’s son, James, however, will be called James Erikson. Thus, the patronym changes each generation.

This can be invaluable to genealogists since it can indicate a paternal heritage, but it can also be confusing because you will see many unrelated people with the same patronym simply because their fathers had the same first name. We don’t usually see this type of change today. Instead, we usually see standard, fixed surnames that are carried from one generation to the next.

Before we get into types of patronymic systems, let’s hop in our time machine and explore why patronymics were used in the first place and why standard surnames replaced them.

Patronym to surname: a hostile takeover

A patronym ties a person to their place in their family, village, and larger community. On a small scale, it is an efficient way to identify a person.“Erik Johnson? Oh, you must be John’s son.” Even if there is more than one John in the village, it quickly narrows down the possibilities.

Now, imagine you are a state entity trying to make a systematic record of the inhabitants of your kingdom. You will quickly find that every town has someone carrying the name Johnson. That might not matter to the individual village, but at a state level, it is difficult to keep proper records with so many names in so many places in a constant state of flux.

To demonstrate the level of possible confusion, in 1700, it was claimed that a grand total of 8 names (John, Edward, William, Henry, Charles, James, Richard, and Robert) accounted for almost 90% of the male population. Even if you record all the Erik Johnsons you find and list their village, that name will change within a generation and you’ll have to start all over.

This makes it incredibly difficult to do a correct inventory of people, their property, what they owe in taxes, etc. Forcing the citizens of your kingdom to adopt a fixed patronym or some other identifying name that will not change with the generations might not help much in the generation when it is applied, but it will help tremendously in future generations. As the saying goes, the two constants in life are death and taxes.

Now, let’s look at the situation from the villagers point of view. If having a patronymic system in place impedes efficient collection of taxes or even military conscription, then there is little incentive to adopt a system that makes it easier for the state to do either. Thus, you have two conflicting interests: those of the government and those of the people.

In most places, people only adopted fixed patronyms or surnames when they were forced to. In a famous example of forced surnames, the Dutch were forced to take them in 1811 by the invading ruler, Napoleon. They made up names to mock the census takers, and we now have people stuck with names like Naaktgeboren (born naked) and Paardebek (horse’s mouth.)

UNO game card that says adopt a surname or draw 25

Most people took the idea a little more seriously and gave names relating to where they lived, what they did, or their patronym. This forever fixed their descendants with their fathers’ names. So now all of Erick Johnson’s sons will carry the fixed patronym Johnson instead of Erikson, then Andersson (or Anderson), and so on.

Even though patronyms have not changed for centuries in many cases, they can still provide a wealth of information about one’s ancestry. As I mentioned earlier, different cultures went about patronymics in different ways, so let’s explore some of these ways.

Scandinavian patronyms

This may be the most well-known example in Western culture, even if people don’t realize they are patronyms.

Much like celebrities today, rulers were the trendsetters for medieval and Renaissance Europe and, historically, were the first to adopt fashion, literature, and culture. This trickled down to the general populace, who adopted the fashions to be one of the cool kids. When it came to fixed patronyms and later surnames, this was the case for most of Scandinavia. They didn’t really take off until the nobility made them cool.

Scandinavian forms included the suffixes -son, -sen, -fen, -søn, -ler, -zen, -zon/zoon, and -sson. Similar names were given to daughters, such as -dotter, -datter, and dӧtter.

Patronym surname meme

Today, Y-DNA testing is very popular in Scandinavia for this reason. Many people have the same or similar names simply because they had fathers with that given name in the generation when surnames were fixed. Thus you have many unrelated Johnsons, Aderssens, Eriksons, etc. with no relation. Y-DNA testing such as the Big Y-700 is a valuable tool for discerning relationships in that case.

Jewish patronyms

Jewish naming conventions are as widely varied as the diaspora. The Jewish diaspora refers to the exile of the Jewish people from their traditional homeland to other parts of the world. This presents an interesting microcosm to the idea of cultural assimilation.

As discussed in my spelling variations article, names and spellings were changed for immigrants and refugees to avoid negative stereotypes or to be better pronounced or understood by the local inhabitants.

In recent years, some Jewish people have returned to their roots in part by changing their names to their original Hebrew names. One traditional form of Hebrew patronymics is to add the suffix ben- or bat- (“son of” and “daughter of,” respectively).

An entire series of articles could be devoted solely to Jewish naming conventions and reasons for changes. For this article, we will briefly touch on two main groups: the Ashkenazi and the Sephardim.


This was a group that migrated north to Eastern Europe and adopted Yiddish. As such, Hebrew names were translated into Yiddish, Russian, German, and other Eastern European languages.

In Germany, Jewish people did not have the same rights as other citizens, and to have certain restrictions lifted and to be granted citizenship, the adoption of a German surname was a requirement. This was referred to as emancipation and similar requirements were imposed in other places, such as France and its territories under Napoleon. This led to many name changes and further obscured their heritage.

1806 print, in which Napoleon grants the Jews freedom to worship, represented by the hand given to the Jewish woman


This was a group that migrated east to the Iberian peninsula and Spain. In the Middle Ages, a series of decrees in Spain forced many to convert to Catholicism at the point of a sword. This led to a mass exodus. Upon arrival in a new country, the refugees would often receive a surname that referred to their origin. For example, immigrants from the Spanish city of Fraga might receive the surname Faraggi, Farag, or Farachi. After immigration, these names usually stuck. Those that remained in Spain changed their name to avoid persecution or to legitimize their conversion to Catholicism.

Indian patronyms

India is so vast and incorporates so many cultures that it recognizes 22 official languages. The naming systems used are equally vast and can use more than one type (e.g., both a toponymic and patronymic).

A common naming convention is to list the given name (with a suffix denoting occupation) followed by the father’s name as a middle name, and ending with a toponym (place name) of the father’s home, combined with a suffix of -iker as the surname. For example, a village headman (Patel/Patil) with the given name Baranwal, a son of Anish from Mumbai, might have the name Baranwal Patil Anish Mumbaiiker.

This is an example of how confusing a name can be and how much information can be gained from it once the system is understood.

Closing thoughts

In researching this article, I found that, for many cultures, the topic of patronymics boiled down to the father’s (or sometimes mother’s) name, usually followed by a suffix meaning “son of” or “daughter of.”

I wish I had time to go more in-depth into all of them, but I wanted to give some overall reasoning behind why they were used and changed. For more reading, I highly recommend the article “Government Surnames and Legal Identities” by James C. Scott, John Tehranian and Jeremy Mathias

One common theme among all the different cultures I read was the way ancestors are remembered and honored in the names of their descendants. This is both a blessing and a curse to genealogists, as they can provide more information but also lead to potentially faulty connections with so many identical names.

Y-DNA testing has proven to be an invaluable tool in deciphering these lines and in finding the right line in a sea of paper trail options.

Equally valuable resources are lineage societies and surname projects. FamilyTreeDNA offers a variety of free-to-join group projects that focus on specific surnames, patronyms, clan names, and name variants.

For patronymic surnames, this is especially important in finding if you are more closely related to, say, the Highland McPhersons or the Ulster McPhersons, the German Martins or the Jewish Martins, and so on.

Take a look at our list of surname projects and see if there is one to fit your needs today!

Jim Brewster - FamilyTreeDNA Blog

About the Author

Jim Brewster

Subject Matter Expert at FamilyTreeDNA

Jim Brewster was born at a very early age and gradually became older. He has been in the genetic genealogy field since 2014 and delivered numerous presentations at genealogy conferences. He has helped with collaborations between FamilyTreeDNA and non-profit organizations and for some reason FamilyTreeDNA decided to let him write stuff too.

With a proven track record of both doing things and accomplishing stuff, Jim enjoys presenting and writing about genetic genealogy methods and the science of DNA testing. In his free time, he enjoys reviewing classic literature in his blog (, puns, and cat pictures.