Names are our most personal possession. In many ways they say to the world who we are. They can bring us fortune as well as shame. Our names can give others, rightfully or wrongfully, a predisposition of whether people will like us or dislike us. Historically, our names are a fingerprint, identification, and perhaps a clue as to who you are, and where you came from.

Most western names today come from the Hebrew, German, Latin, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh languages.

In 325 AD the Catholic Church outlawed the use of pagan names and names from pagan gods. So the use of biblical names became the norm. The church went further in 1545 as it made the use of saints’ names mandatory before Catholic baptism. As a result, there were only about twenty common names for boys and girls.

Later, in the next century, the Reformation and Protestant religions rejected Catholic mandates and traditions. So their children were named after New Testament and Old Testament names, rather than just saints’ names.

Middle names were first introduced by German nobility in the fifteenth century but did not become common until the seventeen-hundreds. The tradition then was to use the mother’s maiden name as the middle name. (Knowing this may be a good first clue when tracing your ancestry around this period. However, nothing is ever, always, absolute.)

The use of a “family” name or second name started in Western countries at about the turn of the firstt millennium, 1,000 AD. As the population grew, it became more difficult for commerce to know who owed money to whom. If Peter was to actually pay Paul, then it became important to know which Peter owed which Paul. So last names, or descriptive names indicating which Peter or Paul began. At the time, Peter and Paul did not even know or care that a descriptive name was attached to their first name. Nor was the same descriptive name used with each transaction.

It is generally agreed that Western civilized countries developed names from one of four ways. The most popular, with about 43% of all names falling into this category, were Location Names. These surnames came from the town, estate, or city where the person lived. Nobles took on the name of their estate and passed it down to their sons. The peasants took on the names of their village most often, or a distinguishing geographical characteristic. Thus names like Atwater, Atwood, Glen, Green, London, Mill, Newtown, Rivers etc., came into being.

The second most common source of names, about 33%, are names coming from Kinship or Son Of names. You know them: Johnson, Peterson, O’Neill, MacLaughlin, Janowicz, Mendelssohn, Sanchez, and Bertucci, to name just a few. All meaning son of or descendant of a first named father. However, this was not as simple as it may have appeared; it took a few centuries and a King’s decree for the Son Of names to become organized. Here is why. Suppose Peter had a new-born son. Let’s say he proudly named him John Peterson. John, a good common first name, and son of Peter (Peterson) as the last name. That’s simple enough. However, when John Peterson grew up and had a son of his own he proudly give him the name of James Johnson of course. Why James Johnson? Because James was a wonderful name for a boy, and by all means, he is the son of John, so his name was James Johnson. But when James had a son he named him Adam Jamison. Which then lead to Adamson, and so on and so on! Who said tracing your family tree was boring?

So, Peter, Peterson, Johnson, Jamison, and Adamson were five generations of direct descendants. This was confusing.

It wasn’t until Henry V decreed that surnames had to be included on all official papers that the legal process of standardising family names began. So, Adamson stayed Adamson, at least for a while.

The third most common source of names came from Occupational Names. Many people think this is the number one source of name derivation, but actually only 15% of names come from this category. This is how we got the Smith, Miller, Taylor, Cooper, Cook, Farmer names, to mention just a few. The reason there are so many Smiths, Millers, Taylors, etc., when this is not the most common source of names, was due to immigration, and in the case of Smiths – soldiers.

The last and least common source of surname creation came from Nicknames or Pet Names. If you had a great-grandfather named Redman. This name could have been taken (or given) because someone had a reddish complexion or red hair, for example. A name like Goodman, may have originally described a kind or generous individual. The name Little, Small and Short, named for a small or short man. And, if you have a Stout in your family tree, well … there may have been a reason for that too.

But not all names are of European origin, and some have been around a lot longer than 1,000 years. Such as Chinese surnames dating back to 2800 BC. In 2852 BC the Chinese Emperor mandated that all names come from a sacred poem. It wasn’t even a very long poem. Since most people would not choose to name their family after a preposition, for example, this has led to about only 1,000 names total, of which 60 are common surnames. So few names to spread around over a billion people today. In the United States there are 1.5 million names used among a population of a third of a billion.

African Americans did not get their surnames, for the most part, from their slave owners, as some people assume.

When slaves were brought to America they were given a random first name by the new master. They did not have last names. Nor were they allowed to refer to themselves by their African tribal names. Surnames were not used by African Americans until after they were freed from slavery.

Once freed, they did not name themselves after the masters of their misery. Who would want a constant reminder of a miserable past? But rather they chose names that were well known, or from prestigious families in the south. Many of those names were Irish, Scottish, English or Welsh.

Even then, last names were not always passed on to the next generation. Often, a name was changed to a more “favourable” one whenever they wanted. That is until the draft of World War I and the implementation of American Social Security and British Pensions made it more difficult to make such random changes.

Unlike English names, which derived mostly from Location and Kinship names, German names were derived mostly from Occupational names like Kaufman, meaning merchant or Schmidt meaning smith. The second most common source for German names were from colours, such as Braun (brown), Grun (green), Rosen (rose), Roth (red), Schwarz (black) and Weiss (white). Nicknames were the second to last most common source of names followed by location names.

German Jews, however, were made to take their names by law in the early 1800s. Those who paid certain German officials were given good names and names of beauty. Those who did not pay were given ugly names like Eselskopf meaning ass head, or Saumagen (hogspaunch), Durst (thirst), or Bettelarm (destitute).

The Scots had a problem with infant mortality during the Middle Ages. So, if a Scottish father wanted to be sure a son would carry his full name he left nothing to chance and gave all his sons the same first name. The odds were in his favour this way. He just wasn’t thinking about the frustrated genealogist descendant that would follow 500 years later.

The Scottish also had a practice of changing their last names whenever they moved. The change would be made to please the Lord of the land. So, your Campbell relation may have really been a Fraser or a MacDonald at different times.

Unusually, historically and legally an Italian child must take the family name of his or her father, unless the identity of the father is unknown. Italians cannot create double-barrelled surnames to keep alive a maternal family name, nor can single Italian mothers give their last names to their children.

Some in Italy are eager to change these laws but are uncertain on how to change it.  Some favour the British way, in which the surname can be that of the father, the mother or both.

Others want Italy to adopt the Spanish tradition of giving a child two surnames – one from each side of the family.