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Last Name Origins

Today's episode explores last names, otherwise known as family names or surnames. We'll mix a little bit of history about the origin of names with some rules about capitalization and other issues.

By
Bonnie Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
July 16, 2015
Episode #474

Origin of last names

It's hard to say when last names were first used, but it's easy to group many last names into certain categories. For example, we have last names based on location, based on occupation, and based on the name of our father. 

Locations

Names with a location origin are based on a place name or a feature of the land. English names based on location include York (after the city in England) and Hill (based on a topographical feature). (1) Japanese surnames are full of references to locations. Two very common Japanese last names, for example, are Tanaka and Yamaguchi. Tanaka literally means “dweller in the middle of rice fields”: ta means “rice field,” and naka means “in.” Yamaguchi translates as “mountain entrance”: yama means “mountain” and guchi means “mouth.” (2)

Occupations

Occupations are the source of many other last names. Think of all the Farmers, Fletchers, Fullers,  Millers, and Smiths you know. Other last names that are related to occupations include Marshall, Steward, Abbott, and Parsons. Some job-related last names have both a masculine and a feminine form. Did you know that “the feminine of Baker is Baxter, the feminine of Brewer is Brewster, and the feminine of Weaver is Webster”? (3)

'Son Of' and 'Daughter Of'

The list of job-related last names is long—but not compared to the list of global last names that originate from son of or daughter of. Here's a small sample: Johnson, Fernandez, O'Connor, MacDougal, Fitzgerald, Jonasdóttir, and bin Laden. Let's look at each of these types of last names and learn some fascinating tidbits. 

Names ending in -son, and sometimes -sen, clearly translate as “son of.” We've got the Carlsons, the Robinsons, and the Albertsons, along with the Nielsens, the Petersens, and the Hansens. Not so obvious are Spanish names ending in the suffix -ez, which means “son of.” Last names with the -ez ending are so common you could almost go through the whole alphabet with them: Alvarez, Benitez, Cortez, Dominguez, Estevez, Fernandez, Gonzalez, Hernandez, Ibañez, Jimenez ... At first it might seem odd that this suffix means “son of,” when the Spanish word for son is hijo. But it turns out that the -ez is a form of the Latin genitive, or possessive, case. (4) In English, our apostrophe plus an S is the same grammatical structure.

The British Isles have given us many last names related to son of, including Celtic ones starting with O', Mac, Mc, and Fitz. All of these particles mean “son of” (more on particles later). You will hear last names such as O'Donnell, MacIntyre, McDougal, and Fitzgerald. Interestingly, in Irish usage, a space always follows the O, but in Anglicized versions we have an apostrophe and no space. (5) In addition, sometimes these Celtic particles become absorbed into the word and we end up with last names like Macpherson, with only the M being capitalized. Compared to all the Mc's and Mac's you'll meet, Fitz as the start of a last name is pretty uncommon. One Fitz-related last name is reserved for the illegitimate son of a king: Fitzroy. Britain's Henry the Eighth, famous for not being able to sire many heirs, especially male ones, did acknowledge an illegitimate son. His name was Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, who lived from 1519 to 1536. (6)

In the list mentioned earlier, you heard the last name Jonasdóttir, which in Icelandic means “daughter of Jonas.” Icelandic last names are mostly derived from the father's first name. (7) For example, if a man named Ragnar had a son and a daughter, their last names would be Ragnarson and Ragnardóttir, respectively. Almost all Icelandic last names originate from the father, but occasionally, the mother's name is used, for example if the “mother wishes to end social ties with the father,” “as a social statement,” or “as a matter of style.” (8)

Moving to the other side of the world, we come to the Middle East. The word bin in Arabic means “son of.” (9) Closely related is the Hebrew particle ben, which means “son,” (10) as found in the name of the airport in Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion, and in the last name Benjamin, which translates as “the son of the right hand.” (11)

Russian Names

Before we move on to some capitalization rules, we will briefly mention Russian last names. Let's just say that they're complicated. Russians have three names: their first name, their middle (patronymic) name, and their last name. (12) As for Russian last names, they usually have “a different ending for males and females.” (13) For example, the last name of Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova ends in -ova, but the last name of her father, Yuri Sharapov,” lacks the -a.

Particles and How to Capitalize Them

When we were discussing Celtic last names, you heard the word particle. Dictionary.com defines it, in a grammar sense, as “a small word of functional or relational use, as an article, preposition, or conjunction, whether of a separate form class or not.” (14) For our purposes here, that just means it's a doodad that forms part of a last name. We've already talked about Mac and Fitz, for example. Other common particles include de, von, la, and van.” The first two of these are referred to as “nobiliary particles” (15) and often indicate a person has noble origins. 

You can't always believe a noble-sounding name, however. Nineteenth-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac embellished his name by adding a de before it. He is so well regarded, though, that his name continues to be written that way, even if it's technically inaccurate. (16)

As far as capitalizing the various particles, there are many rules, depending on the country of origin and perhaps depending on the reference book you consult. Here is one easy-to-remember rule from Garner’s Modern American Usage: “every lowercase particle gets capitalized at the beginning of a sentence.” (17) For example, if you're starting a sentence with the name of Spanish playwright Lope de Vega, which has a lowercase D in de, the sentence would begin De, with a capital D. 

Garner also states that in Romance languages such as French, Spanish, and Italian, particles that are prepositions that mean “of,” “from,” and “at” are not capitalized, and he explains that the most common German particle, von, is never capitalized, except when starting a sentence. (18) According to the Chicago Manual of Style, (19) the French particle Le is always capitalized, as in the name of Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon. Garner also says that last names from the Netherlands often contain the particle van, sometimes with der after. He explains that capitalization rules differ depending on whether the name originates from Dutch or Flemish. (20) It would be difficult for Americans to tell which one is which. 

As a result of this potential confusion about how to capitalize foreign names that contain particles originating from various languages, you might like to follow the advice of the Chicago Manual of Style (21) and the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. (22) They both suggest consulting a biographical dictionary so that you can capitalize all parts of the name correctly. Or you could guess. Ha ha. Just kidding!

Asian Names

Let's cover one last name-related rule before we go. Many Asian cultures use a different convention than what we use for Western names. In Chinese, for example, “the family name comes before the given name.” (23) The Chicago Manual of Style recommends that you “follow this practice in English contexts with names of Chinese persons but not with those of persons of Chinese origin whose names have been Anglicized.” You've probably heard of the famous Chinese people Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek. The last names in these examples are Mao and Chiang.

That segment was written by Bonnie Bartondóttir, actually Bonnie Mills, who is the author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier and blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.

References

1. SCA College of Arms, “A Brief Introduction to the History of Names,” http://heraldry.sca.org/names/namehist.html. Accessed June 24, 2015.

2. Behind the Name, “Japanese Surnames,” http://surnames.behindthename.com/names/usage/japanese. Accessed June 24, 2015.

3. SCA College of Arms, “A Brief Introduction to the History of Names,” http://heraldry.sca.org/names/namehist.html. Accessed June 24, 2015.

4. Word Connections blog, “The suffix -ez in Spanish family names,” https://wordconnections.wordpress.com/2015/02/15/the-suffix-ez-in-spanish-family-names/. Accessed June 24, 2015.

5. Garner, Bryan. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 557-8.

6. Tudorplace.com, “Henry Fitzroy,” http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/aboutHenryFitzroy.htm. Accessed June 24, 2015.

7. The Name Meaning, “Icelandic Names,” http://www.thenamemeaning.com/categories/icelandic-names/. Accessed June 24, 2015.

8. Wikipedia.com, “Icelandic Name,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_name#Matronymic_naming_as_a_choice. Accessed June 24, 2015.

9. Garner, Bryan. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 557-8.

10. BibleStudyTools.com, “Ben,” http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/hebrew/nas/ben.html. Accessed June 26, 2015.

11. The Internet Surname Database, “Last name: Benjamin,” http://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Benjamin. Accessed June 26, 2015.

12. University of Virginia, “Russian Naming Conventions,” http://faculty.virginia.edu/herman/tolstoy/namingconventions.htm. Accessed June 26, 2015.

13. Russian Language for Lovers, “Russian Names,” http://www.russian-language-for-lovers.com/russian-names.html. Accessed June 26, 2015.

14. Dictionary.com, “Particle,” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/particle. Accessed June 26, 2015.

15. Dictionary.com, “Nobiliary Particle,” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/nobiliary+particle. Accessed June 26, 2015.

16. enotes.com, “Honoré de Balzac,” http://www.enotes.com/topics/honore-de-balzac. Accessed June 26, 2015.

17. Garner, Bryan. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 557-8.

18. Garner, Bryan. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 557-8.

19. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 388-393.

20. Garner, Bryan. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 557-8.

21. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 388-393.

22.  American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pp. 1808-9.

23. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 388-393.

[Correction: This article originally said that last names are sometimes called Christian names, but Christian names are first names.]

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