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History of Names

What’s in a name you may ask? Well, perhaps everything actually! Surnames or family names reach centuries back into history to forefathers long ago departed. No one’s memory reaches back as far, nor can the memory of parents, grandparents or even great grandparents recall these first ancestors. The one heirloom we all receive is our last name. It is an identifier and used as such in school, work, and play. But more than just a mere moniker, a name tells a greater story, sometimes a great story – as it specifies the region, country and even the actions of our forefathers. A name tells us more about our family history that just about anything we possess!

By tracing your family name to its origin you can find out if there was royalty in your family, nobility, warriors, or any other person or persons of note…or disrepute.

Names didn’t come about by chance. Names were tools of identification and many times an indicator of accomplishment.

Before the early 1300s European surnames were not commonly passed down to children. A person’s surname would end with the person’s death. This made sense in a time that was much less crowded than it is today, a world where most people never ventured more than a few miles from their place of birth and every man knew his neighbors. In such a time and place, first names (also known as Christian or given names) were the only designations necessary, and a surname was needed only to distinguish John the blacksmith from John in the granary.

Surnames can originate from multiple sources. Many surnames are known as personal names and refer to a characteristic (such as red hair or pale skin) of the original bearer. These are also the type that describe a person’s trade or occupation (such as a soldier).

Sometimes names are patronymic in origin, meaning derived from the first name of one's father, grandfather or an even earlier male ancestor. Though much rarer some names were matronymic in origin deriving from one’s mother or a female ancestor. Still yet are other surnames that are of toponymic origin. These surnames are derived from the place from which the bearer’s predecessors dwelled.

Many patronyms predate the use of surnames and family names. Take for example the descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages (Niall Noigiallach). The descendants of Niall were known as the Uí Néill (O'Neill) clan, hence the surnames Ó Neil, O'Neill, O'Neal etc. Of note is that "O" was originally Ó (the accent over the O in Gaelic is called a “fada”, literally meaning “long”, and when found over a vowel signals an elongation of the vowel sound). The Ó in turn came from the Gaelic Ua, which means grandson, or descendant. The prefix is most often anglicized to O'.

The first generation of the Uí Néill clan were his sons, seven in all, and all were known as the sons of Niall. The actual name Uí Néill did not, by its very nature, come into being until the time of Niall's grandsons and great-grandsons. One of Neill’s sons, Eoghan, in turn fostered the name MacEoghan (MacEoin, McKeone, McKewan), another son Conall gave rise to the name MacConall (MacConnell) and then O’Connell, and so the O’Neills, MacEoghans, O’Connells, et al are all from the very same clan or family but with different patronymic names.

Most every culture which formerly used patronyms switched to the more widespread style of passing just the father's last name to the children (and wife). From the 16th Century on, when a woman married it became standard for her to take her husband’s name. That practice is still the norm, however, nowadays, it is certainly not uncommon for a woman to keep her last name after she gets married.

Parents’ names are essentially a child’s identity in Spanish and Latino cultures; everyone has a double surname by law, although they are written without a hyphen and most people use only their first surname in everyday use. When a person is born, the custom is for them to take the first surname of the father and then the first surname of the mother.

Surnames provide a link to the family’s past; identify families as a whole, and are a source of family pride. Men feel it an honor to pass their family name to their sons so they may carry on the family name.

Researching a person’s last name is truly the first step to uncovering that family’s history. All names are a means of conveying lineage. Your Lineage. My Lineage.

You are called by your name every day; why not find out where it comes from?

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