surnames and meanings

surnames and meanings

After “where is my family from?”, the 3 top searches that lead people to this site are:

  • “What is the origin of my last name?”
  • “understanding of surnames”
  • “surnames and meanings”

We can’t address the meaning of every surname, but the first recommendation we offer to those digging into the roots of their last name is to type your last name followed by the words ‘surname meaning‘ into your favorite search engine. For instance, using Google, if you type:

Miller surname meaning

the search results will most likely be led by Wikipedia, which provides you with information and additional resources on the surname Miller. You’ll also see a search result pointing to Ancestry.com who has a great section on family name origin. They also have a Surname Search on their Message Boards.

As with the surname Miller, your surname can be a descriptor of your ancestor’s occupation: Farmer, Baker, Miller, Cooper. Or of the family’s attributes such as, Proud, Good, or Valliant.

Your surname may also be a result of where your ancestors were from. The surname Bayer has its origins in Bavaria, also known as Bayern. That seems pretty clear, however, there are variations on the name Bayer, such as Bauer. Somewhere along the way someone chose “u” instead of “y” – or the other way around – and that’s less clear.

In many cases, when people migrated to the United States, their surname became anglicized. Someone from Germany who was a miller may have had the surname of Mueller. Once they arrived in the United States, their last name became Miller, and in the case of Bauer, became Bower.

Many people received ‘new’ surnames because the immigration official wrote down their interpretation of what they heard an immigrant say. The surname Harrold is a good example: Harrold, Herald, Harold, Herrald, Harrald. But let’s not blame the immigration official. Long before Ellis Island, people would allow misspellings on everything from birth certificates, to land deeds, to death certificates. It can be confusing to establish that a Michael Fallon came from a family in Ireland who called themselves O’Faolain.

If you have a Polish surname, it’s meaning could take on much of the preceding customs: where you were from dictates surnames ending in ‘ski’ (Poland) or ‘sky’, (Russia), if your ancestor’s occupation was miller, your surname might be Młynarz. What social status your ancestor held was reflected in their last name (i.e., the surname Brodowksi translates to ‘lord of Brodowo’). To add to the complexity, although most surnames are taken from the father, the mother’s surname may be used.

If you are of Spanish origin, you most likely have your father’s surname and your mother’s surname as your surname – in that order. If you’re looking for the origin of your mother and father’s surnames, check out ask.com. Type ‘Spanish surnames’ in the search bar and you’ll find pages of resources for you to explore. For other ethnic groups we found the following resources:

  • For African Americans researching one’s surname we recommend Afrigeneas.
  • Asians researching the origins of their surname can begin with this Surname Directory.
  • An online resource for exploring Native American surnames are the RootsWeb Message Boards
  • A good starting point to understanding Jewish surnames is at Judaism 101.

Surnames and their meanings and origin are as varied as ethnicities and nationalities. An understanding of the naming customs will keep you on the right path to discovering the meaning of your and your ancestors’ surnames. Start by doing an online search. Happy travels!