At least for purposes of research, just about every genealogist rues the ancestor whose last name is common, and therefore hard to trace, and rejoices in their ancestors with more unusual names. While an unusual surname undeniably can make genealogical research easier, it doesn’t corner the market on interesting and informative origins.
In Western Europe, surnames first came about in Medieval times as civilizations grew larger and it became necessary to distinguish between people.
Sometimes, names were based on occupation: a blacksmith may have been “John le Smith” (John the Smith) which became, over the generations, “Smith,” and a person named Appleby lived by or tended the apple orchard. Celebrity Robin Leach’s ancestor was probably a physician (because in medieval times, physicians used leeches to bleed people). Actor Christopher Reeve’s ancestor, the one to first take the surname, was most likely a sheriff, and Sarah Jessica Parker’s early medieval ancestor probably tended a park.
Other surnames were based on location: an Acker, which comes from “acre,” lived near a field, and a Hall lived in or worked in a hall of a Medieval nobleman’s house. And it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what a forebear named Young or Strong or Gray looked like.
Higher social status surnames are more rare today — how many Rothschilds (from the German “red shield”) did you go to school with? — and lower status ones fairly common. Lower social status people were also sometimes given unfortunate names by others, such as “Tew” (Welsh for “fat”) or “Dullard,” which means a hard or conceited man.
And in many parts of the world surnames derived from men’s names. A person named Robertson is descended from someone who was the “son of Robert,” and a MacDonald is from a Scottish “son of Donald.” Armenian names of this sort generally end in “-ian,” Polish ones in “-ski,” and Irish ones are put together a little differently, starting with the prefix “Fitz-.”
In Spanish-speaking parts of the world, people often take both their mother and father’s surnames. And some families still use family or “house” names that are not surnames at all, like the royal Windsors or Plantagenets.
Asian surnames have different stories. Most of the approximately 100,000 Japanese surnames in use today only date from 1868 and the Meiji Restoration, when surnames were mandated for the first time. There are just a few hundred common Chinese surnames, and 20 of them (which reflect an entire clan or were adopted by nobles) are shared by half the population. There are about 250 Korean surnames, three of them comprising almost half the Korean population, and just about 100 Vietnamese ones, with three making up 60 percent of all names in that country.
More than 2,600 members at the UK-based Guild of One-Name Studies devote their genealogical research to about 8,400 “one-name studies,” meaning they study everything known about a particular surname, whether the people they research are related biologically or linked to other family trees they are studying. Focusing in on a family surname can be a useful way to break through a genealogical brick wall, and most guild members are easy to reach and willing to share information (generally they ask, in return, for you to share your data on a name).
Plugging your surname of interest into the Ancestry.com Last Names Meanings And Origins widget gives an interesting and useful overview, too. Plug in the surname “Duffield” and you see it’s English, a “habitational name from places in Derbyshire and East Yorkshire, so named from Old English Dufe ‘dove’ + feld ‘open country.’” The results page shows what records Ancestry.com holds for the name Duffield and a “name distribution” of Duffield families through the years, as automatically generated by Census records.
Slide a bar and a map shows how families with that surname moved through space (in this case, England, Wales, and the U.S.) and time (from 1840 to 1880 and 1920). In addition, there’s an overview of occupations the family has held, immigration and Civil War service records, and links to pertinent threads from message boards.