By: Jim Brewster

The origin of a surname can vary based on the type you are researching. Understanding what type of surname you’re looking into can help optimize your research.

Ah names. From Rumplestiltskin to A Boy Named Sue, names have held great, even mystical, power throughout all cultures and times. There are almost as many names as there are people in the world, and each has a meaning.

Whether that name is simply an identifier or it holds a deeper meaning, it is important for genealogists and family historians to trace the bewildering maze that can be ancestral names.

Surnames hold particular significance among genealogists, as they are often inherited from ancestors and remain unchanged (or only slightly changed) throughout many generations. This can be crucial to understanding how ancestors and families connect, but it can also be confusing when you come across different, unrelated people with the same surname.

There are clues to why some names may be shared by unrelated people or why they seem to change so abruptly in the same proven lineage. Many types of surnames follow various naming conventions and come about at a specific time and place for a specific reason in history.

Types of surnames:

  • Occupational: assigned based on the skills that someone provided to the community.
  • Patronymic: passed down from the father’s first name
  • Toponymic: carried based on the location on the family line
  • Clan Names: adopted from the family clan
  • Epithet/Byname: nicknames given by the community
  • Napoleonic Code: names assigned to families based on the tax level of the family

Let’s explore some of these conventions to better understand what they mean

Occupational Surnames Denote Someone’s Occupation

Say you live way back in Ye Olde Times, and in your little village, there are three men named John. Each of them has different occupations, so to make things easier, everyone in Ye Olde Village calls them John the blacksmith, John the carpenter, and John the cobbler.

Types of Surnames: Occupational. Three men sitting on a wall. John Smith, John Carpenter, and John Cobbler.

That’s a bit cumbersome, so you just shorten it to John Smith, John Carpenter, and John Cobbler. Boom, now you have a surname.

Modern-day Occupational Surnames

We do the same thing today, even if you don’t realize it. When I need to add someone’s number to my contact list (that’s a fancy Rolodex for those of you who still live in Ye Olde Village), to better remember them, I’ll enter them as “Tom Handyman,” “Jennifer Petsitter,” or “Karen Avoidatallcosts.” It’s basically assigning them a surname to help us better identify them.

Occupations often got passed down in families, and they were the family trade. To make things easier, everyone in Ye Olde Village just adds that occupational surname to the whole family, and thus we have a legacy and a lineage to pass down. These occupational names carry over through migrations as well, so some names are occupational names, just from languages other than ones you are familiar with.

Patronymic Surnames Are Inherited From the Father

In some cultures, a particular industry was very important. For example, a major export for many areas of medieval Scandinavia was textiles and clothing. Well, you can only have so many people running around with occupational surnames like Tailor, Weaver, or Dyer before it gets just as confusing as all the Johns in Ye Olde Village. Instead, they adopted a form of surname called patronymics (or, in some cases, matronymics).

With patronymics, children were named after the father. For example, William’s sons would be named Williamson, while his daughters would be named Williamsdotter. While effective, this also meant that surnames changed with each successive generation. William’s son Eric would be Eric Williamson; his son would be John Ericson; and so on. Many lineages have since decided to abandon this practice, and at some point, an ancestor set a fixed surname.

Types of Surnames: Patronymic (Family Tree showing William at the top. Two songs beneath him, Eric Williamson and Michael Williamson. Two sons beneath both Eric and Michael. The two sons below Eric Williamson are John Ericson and Mark Ericson. The two sons below Michael Williamson are Peter Michaelson and Joseph Michaelson.)

One unique difficulty of this naming pattern is that you have many people with the same surname (e.g., Johnson) who are not genetically related; they just all happened to have an ancestor named John, whose descendants affixed the surname. There are a number of surname projects based on Scandinavian patronymic names for this reason.

This same pattern has been used in many cultures over time. Here are a few examples:

Welsh Patronyms

Welsh children would take the forename as a surname. For example, Evan, son of Thomas, would be Evan Thomas. In some cases, word stems meaning “son of” or “daughter of” were incorporated in various ways. For example “son of John” turned to “Jones”, and “David” turned to “Davis” and so on.

Gaelic Patronyms

The prefixes “Mac,” “Mc,” and O’” all mean “Son of.” When the prefix was followed by the letter C, the C was often dropped. Thus, MacGuire became Maguire, MacGuinness became Magennis, and so on.

There is a myth that “Mac” is Irish while “Mc” is Scottish, though this is unfounded.

Russian Patronyms

There are three components to Russian names: First name, family name, and patronymic. The patronymic portion follows the same pattern as described above, with the father’s first name + a suffix of -evna or -ovna for women and -ich, -ovich, or -evich for men.

For example, if you meet Lyudmila Nikolayevna, you already know tha she’s the daughter of a man named Nikolai. While Ekaterina Aleksandrovna has a father named Aleksandr.

For, the name of the famous author Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, we can see ‘Mikhailovich.’ From this we know his father’s name was Mikhail.

Toponymic Surnames Give Clues About Geography

These are surnames related to places. These are popular among English and Scottish naming conventions, among others. They were used particularly when a family emigrated to a new area to identify their birthplace. Some examples would be Attenborough. Polish names ending in -owski reflect the same convention.

Physical Landmark Surnames

In some cases, this may refer to a geographic feature rather than a town. Rockwell, Hill, and Roach are all examples. The last is an example of a language change, as it derives from the Old French word roche (rock).

Some Surnames Derived From Clan Names

Similar to patronymics, members of a particular tribe or clan would identify themselves as members of their group by adopting the name of the clan patriarch. This means adopted members of the clan would adopt the surname while not being genetically related.

Types of Surnames: Clan Names (A group of people standing. Clan McDuff. The Duffs, Fifes, and Fyfes.)

This is accomplished in various ways in different cultures. Possibly the most well known examples come from Ireland and Scotland. The prefixes Mac and Mc mean “Son of” while O’ (for men) and Ui’ (for women) mean “descendent of”. These prefixes are sometimes anglicized to be gender neutral.

Epithet/Byname: Surnames That Originated As Nicknames

An Epithet or Byname surname is basically a glorified nickname. In many cases, these were the precursors to surnames, used to differentiate people with the same name.

Types of Surnames: Epithet/Byname (Man standing with arms, wide smile, and a heart overlayed on his chest. His name is John Merriweather.

After all, we wouldn’t want to confuse Richard of Cornwall with Richard the Lionheart. Think Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, or my personal favorite, Æthelred the Unready.

Bynames could also be about a person’s appearance. If you had red hair, you might’ve had the byname John Roux in France. If you were not wealthy, you might’ve been called John Scholl in Germany. If you had a sunny disposition, you might’ve been called John Merriweather.

Napoleonic Code: Some People Chose Their Own Surname

In some places, surnames were imposed for tax purposes. For example, prior to the 18th century, many Ashkenazi Jewish people used patronymics that changed every generation and did not adopt fixed surnames until Napoleon came along and wanted to tax everyone. Thus, there were many different, unrelated families that adopted the same surname. This is one reason that Jewish genealogy can be challenging.

Types of Surnames: Napoleonic Code. A man standing next to Napoleon Bonaparte on a horse. His is waving at Napoleon. A speech bubble next to him says

Many Dutch surnames today come from Napoleon’s decree and translate to different phrases, like Leeflang (live long), Vroegop (awake early), and Schuddeboom (shake the tree).

Some names were more popular than others in different geographic areas, so while the surname may have been recent, it can reveal some clues about the regions these names came from.


While a conclusion is not typically a surname convention, it is often used as a suffix for articles, essays, and blogs. It is rarely used in professional writing, as it is usually pretty obvious that the piece of writing is coming to a close, but my hero, Captain Obvious (a type of Epithet), is a big fan of them. Thus, I, Jim the Blog Writer, am going to use one.

In conclusion, surnames are important for finding your identity, your ancestry, and your origins. They provide clues to occupation, location, ethnicity, and much more.

Jim Brewster - FamilyTreeDNA Blog

About the Author

Jim Brewster

Contractor for 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.

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