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Surnames Handbook: A Guide to Family Name Research in the 21st Century

Surnames Handbook: A Guide to Family Name Research in the 21st Century

by Debbie Kennett, Derek A. Palgrave

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Every surname has its own story to tell, and a surname study is a natural complement to family history research. The study of surnames has been revolutionised in the last decade with the increasing availability of online resources, and it is now easier than ever before to explore the history, evolution, distribution and meaning of your family name. The Surnames


Every surname has its own story to tell, and a surname study is a natural complement to family history research. The study of surnames has been revolutionised in the last decade with the increasing availability of online resources, and it is now easier than ever before to explore the history, evolution, distribution and meaning of your family name. The Surnames Handbook provides a comprehensive guide to researching your surname using genealogical methods in conjunction with the latest advances in DNA testing and surname mapping. The book explores the key resources that are used to study a surname and is packed with links to relevant websites giving you everything you need to research your surname in one compact volume. DEBBIE KENNETT, an editor and genealogist, has been researching her family tree for over a decade. She is the founder of the Cruse/Cruwys one-name study and runs three large international DNA projects. She writes for many family history magazines. Her first book DNA and Social Networking is also published by The History Press. ‘I believe this handbook, which is a significant contribution to our understanding in this field, deserves not only our admiration and gratitude, but also a place on our bookshelves.’ Derek A. Palgrave – President of the Guild of One-Name Studies

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The Surnames Handbook

A Guide to Family Name Research in the 21st Century

By Debbie Kennett

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Debbie Kennett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-8349-8



About the yeare of our Lord 1000 ... surnames began to be taken up in France ... But not in England till about the time of the Conquest, or else a very little before, under King Edward the Confessor, who was all Frenchified. And to this time do the Scottish men also refer the antiquity of their surnames ... Yet in England certain it is, that as the better sort, even from the Conquest by little and little took surnames, so they were not settled among the common people fully, until about the time of King Edward the Second ...

William Camden, Remaines Concerning Britain ... 1605, 7th impression (1674), pp. 135–6

The historian and antiquarian William Camden (1551–1623) wrote his observations on surnames over 400 years ago in a chapter of a book containing an idiosyncratic and entertaining range of essays on various aspects of British history. No evidence has been found that surnames were in use in England before the Conquest, but otherwise Camden's description paints a remarkably accurate picture of the development of surnames in France, England and Scotland, though his politically incorrect vocabulary might cause offence to modern ears. Around the world surnames were adopted in different countries at varying times. The use of surnames dates back for several thousand years in China, and the practice later spread to other Asian countries. The Koreans adopted surnames from the Chinese during the Three Kingdoms period in the first century BC, and the aristocracy in Japan began using family names in the fifth century AD. The Romans were known by both family names and nicknames, but the modern hereditary surnames that are used today in Europe evolved much later. Surnames began to be used in Byzantium in the tenth century AD. Some Irish clan names can also be traced back before the year 1000. However, in most western European countries surnames started to develop from the eleventh century onwards. The fashion began with the nobility and the wealthy landowners, and slowly spread to the rest of society. By the fourteenth century surnames were well established in most parts of Continental Europe and the British Isles, though usage was by no means universal. In Scandinavia, some parts of Wales and in Shetland in Scotland the traditional patronymic naming system persisted until the nineteenth century, and sometimes later. The reasons for the introduction of surnames are not fully understood but appear to be tied up with the need to prove ownership of land and property for inheritance purposes, the introduction of taxes, and the increasing use of written records during the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, all of which required a more precise means of identification than a single unadorned name.

In some places the population was forced to adopt surnames by government decree. In the Philippines, for example, people were required to adopt Spanish-style surnames in 1849, and in Hawaii a surname law was passed in 1857. Although surnames had been used by the noble clans in Japan for as many as fifteen centuries, it was not until 1870 that the rest of the population was permitted to use surnames. Surnames became mandatory for all Japanese people in 1875 when a new civil registration system was introduced. In Turkey surnames were brought in by decree in 1934 as part of the range of reforms introduced by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Special laws were enacted in eastern European countries that required all Ashkenazi Jews to assume a surname. The first legislation of this kind was passed in 1787 by the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, and required all Jews to assume a German surname. In some countries surnames are an even more recent innovation. In Mongolia a law requiring the use of surnames was passed in 1997, but it was largely ignored until 2004, when the government introduced a new identity card that necessitated the use of surnames. Now, more than 90 per cent of Mongolia's population have adopted surnames. There are still some societies that have no surnames. Iceland famously uses a patronymic naming system, and all Icelanders are listed by their first name in the telephone directory.

In most Western societies the convention is to use the given name or forename first followed by the family name. In some countries, such as China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Hungary, the family name is traditionally placed before the given name.


The Chinese are generally regarded as having been the first culture to adopt surnames. The vast majority of surnames in use in China today existed in fully developed form about 2,000 years ago, with many surnames originating during the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC). Historically ninety-seven of the 100 most common surnames today originated during the Spring and Autumn Period (722–476 BC) and the Warring States Period (476–221 BC) when the territory of China was limited to the central plains. The Han people are the largest ethnic group in China and the ethnic minorities that invaded or migrated into central China were assimilated by the Han people, and adopted Han surnames. In the Confucian culture people were discouraged from changing their surname unless there was a special reason to do so, such as to receive a noble surname from an emperor.

China has a population of over 1.3 billion, and is the world's most populous country, but it is notable for its very limited stock of surnames. In the last decade or so Chinese researchers have made a number of attempts to quantify the number of surnames in use in the country and their frequency. A study published in 2006 by Yuan Yida from the Chinese Academy of Sciences collected surname data from almost 300 million people in China. It was found that 87 per cent of the population shared just 129 surnames. A total of just 4,100 surnames were identified in the survey. Li (Lee), the most common surname, was shared by 7.4 per cent of the population, Wang (Wong) accounted for 7.2 per cent of the population and Zhang (Chang) was used by 6.8 per cent. A more recent report, cited in the New York Times, lists the top three surnames in a slightly different order: Wang was the most common surname with more than 92 million bearers, followed by Li with 91 million and Zhang with 86 million. The most comprehensive study to date was published in 2012. The researchers studied the surnames of 1.28 billion people in China's National Citizen Identity Information System. The dataset excluded Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. It was found that the population of China shared just 7,327 surnames.

Historically, there were many more surnames in use in China, the vast majority of which have now become extinct. All known Chinese surnames are recorded in the Great Dictionary of Chinese Surnames, the latest edition of which is reputed to include more than 23,000 surnames. The classic Chinese text known as the Hundred Family Surnames, composed in the early Song Dynasty (960–1279), is a rhyming poem listing the most common surnames in ancient China. The word 'hundred' in Chinese often just means a large number and the title should really be translated as 'The Many Surnames'. The book originally contained 411 surnames but was later expanded to include 504. Ronald Eng Young's Chinese surnames website (http://freepages.family.rootsweb. ancestry.com/~chinesesurname/index.html) has lists of the names in the Hundred Family Surnames book and their meanings, shown in both numerical and alphabetical order.

In Chinese culture the surname precedes the given name, but Chinese people settling in the West usually adopt the Western convention of placing the surname last. Most Chinese surnames consist of just a single syllable. Orphans in China were traditionally given generic surnames such as Dang (party) and Guo (state), which defined their status. New regulations were due to be introduced in 2012 that would require orphanage officials to choose from the list of the 100 most common Chinese family names.

The Romans

In the West the beginnings of surnames can be seen in the naming system used by the Romans, who adopted a binominal (two-name) system from around the seventh century BC, though its origins remain obscure. Individuals were given a praenomen (a forename), which was followed by a hereditary nomen or nomen gentilicium that indicated the bearer's gens (clan) membership. There was only ever a very limited stock of praenomina. In the regal and republican period 99 per cent of Roman men shared one of only seventeen praenomina. Outside the family it was the custom to address people by the praenomen and nomen together, and if only one name was used it would be the nomen not the praenomen. In the late second century BC a third type of name known as a cognomen first started to appear. This was a nickname that was specific to an individual but was often hereditary. Evidence suggests that the use of the cognomen was pioneered by the elite, who were perhaps keen to differentiate a noble family ancestry. A rigid convention developed and names were bestowed in accordance with family tradition. The tria nomina (three-name) system – praenomen, nomen and cognomen – only became commonplace in the first century AD, and by the middle of the third century AD nearly all men possessed the tria nomina. A person could also be distinguished by an additional cognomen – known as an agnomen – which denoted a particular quality or exploit. With such a limited pool of praenomina the new individual cognomina became the main identifying names. In formal public usage people were now universally known by the nomen and cognomen used in combination. The praenomen was reduced to a standard abbreviation.

By the second century AD the nomenclature became increasingly complicated. Multiple cognomina and even praenomina began to be adopted by the senatorial aristocracy. The new fashion for polyonymy, as it was known, was the result of a new practice of 'testamentary adoption' whereby beneficiaries were required to adopt the testator's name as a condition of accepting an inheritance. This was especially the case if the mother's wealth or noble pedigree was considered to enhance the family's reputation. There was no limit to the number of names that could be adopted, and some people acquired an exceptionally large collection of pedigree names. In AD 212 the emperor Caracalla granted all free subjects Roman citizenship by means of an edict known as the Constitutio Antoniniana. A nomen was now required of all Roman citizens for official purposes and a limited number of default nomina, such as Aurelius and Iulius, were adopted by the new citizens. The nomen thus became a mark of citizenship rather than hereditary status for these New Romans. It was then a natural development for the nomen to be changed to reflect status and imperial rank. Flavius became established as the nomen indicating higher status, and Aurelius was the default nomen for those of lesser status. In parallel with these developments, the influence of Christianity also saw the introduction of new cognomina of Hebrew and Aramaic origin from the scriptures. With the ubiquity of Aurelius and Flavius, the New Romans used the cognomen as a distinguishing name, and the nomen also became increasingly less important for the Old Romans. The identifying cognomen evolved naturally into a single-name system, and the nomen had effectively disappeared by the seventh century AD. In most Western European countries it was not until the High Middle Ages (c. 1000–1300) that hereditary surnames once more came into usage.

The Normans

The Normans began to use surnames in the first half of the eleventh century. The early Norman surnames were tied up with the feudal system of heritable tenure, and consequently many were toponymics – surnames derived from place-names and landscape features – though nicknames were also favoured. James Holt, a former Master of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and a professor of medieval history, provides an informative account of Norman surnames, with names and dates backed up with extensive references, in What's in a Name? Family Nomenclature and the Norman Conquest (1982):

In the charters of the Norman dukes and in such original documents that remain from the families themselves, toponymics, indeed any kind of byname other than the occasional patronymic, were exceptional before the reign of Duke William. The general impression of the ducal acts is that toponymics and other hereditary names spread and spread fast, only from the 1040s and 1050s. Some names of the more important families can be driven a little earlier. The oldest of them all is the name Tosny (Toeni) which was in use by 1014 and probably earlier; that is the first appearance of a toponymic in any of the ducal acts. Bellême makes its first appearance in 1023–25, Beaumont and Montgomery in 1035–40, Warenne in 1037–53, Mortimer in 1054, Grandmesnil in 1055, Montfort in 1063. These dates have to be based largely on attestations of the ducal acts and other charter material; there is no other reliable evidence.

The fact that the use of hereditary toponymics was not just an accident is evidenced by the appearance of other forms of byname that became hereditary during the same period. Holt cites the examples of Taisson, which first appears in ducal acts in 1025, Giffard in 1035–47, Malet in 1035–66, and Marmion, which appears in 1060. Patronymics were also used by the Normans at this time in the form 'Richard fitz Gilbert' but they do not appear to have become hereditary surnames until much later. Holt suggests that the fitz Alans of Oswestry (after 1175) and the fitz Gerolds (1177–78) were the first to make this transition. He concludes that the nomenclature in Normandy was gradually changing in the first half of the eleventh century, and the roots were firmly planted by 1054 when William's victory at the Battle of Mortemer secured his position as the Duke of Normandy and paved the way for the future conquest of England.

William the Conqueror probably had 7,000 men or more under his command at the Battle of Hastings, but research in the 1930s by members of the Society of Genealogists has shown that the names of only nineteen companions can be identified from reliable contemporary sources, one of which is the Bayeux Tapestry. Of these nineteen men, it has been proven that fifteen fought at the Battle of Hastings, and four 'almost certainly' fought at the battle. The nineteen names are as follows (the last four names on the list are those who have only been identified as being present at the battle):

Robert de Beaumont, afterwards Earl of Leicester
Eustace, Count of Boulogne
William of Evreux
Geoffrey of Mortagne, afterwards Count of Perche
William FitzOsbern, afterwards Earl of Hereford
Aimery IV, Vicomte of Thouars
Hugh de Montfort, Lord of Montfort-sur-Risle
Walter Giffard, Lord of Longueville
Ralf de Tosni, Lord of Conches
Hugh de Grandmesnil, Lord of Grandmesnil
William de Warenne, afterwards Earl of Surrey
William Malet
Turstin FitzRou
Engenulf de Laigle
Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, and afterwards Earl of Kent (William the
Conqueror's stepbrother)
Geoffrey de Mowbray, Bishop of Coutances
Robert, Count of Mortain, afterwards Earl of Cornwall (William the
Conqueror's younger half-brother)
Wadard, a tenant of the Bishop of Bayeux
Vital, a tenant of the Bishop of Bayeux

A probable descent in the male line can be traced to the present day from only one of those names, William Malet, though there are some gaps. A document known as the Battle Abbey Roll exists in various versions and purports to list the names of those who were present at Hastings, but this is not a contemporary document and is not considered to be a reliable source. Many names appear to have been added at a later date. The earliest version of the Battle Abbey Roll, with a list of 551 surnames, is included in a document known as the Auchinleck Manuscript, which was produced in London in the 1330s. This manuscript is now held in the National Library of Scotland, and is one of the library's greatest treasures. A full transcription with a digital facsimile is now available online at http://auchinleck.nls.uk. Other versions of the Battle Abbey Roll were published from the sixteenth century onwards, all of which were seemingly unaware of the existence of the earlier manuscript. Many of these volumes can now be easily accessed in the Internet Archive (http://archive.org) by searching for 'Battle Abbey Roll'. The Dives Roll, compiled by Leopold Delisle in 1866, is supposedly a list of Companions of the Conqueror but the author cites no sources. In 1931 the French government arranged for a plaque to be put up in the Castle of Falaise in Normandy containing the names of 315 men who supposedly fought at the Battle of Hastings, but this list was again drawn up from late and unreliable sources. A list of names from the Falaise Roll, the Dives Roll and various versions of the Battle Abbey Roll (with the exception of the Auchinleck Manuscript) is provided in My Ancestors Came with the Conqueror (Camp, 1990). While it might not be possible to prove that an ancestor came with the Conqueror, these sources might nevertheless provide pointers to the Norman origin of a surname.


Excerpted from The Surnames Handbook by Debbie Kennett. Copyright © 2012 Debbie Kennett. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Debbie Kennett (Author) : DEBBIE KENNETT, an editor and genealogist, is well known internationally as being at the cutting-edge of family history research. She organises two projects at Family Tree DNA (largest, US-based international testing group) and writes for many Family History magazines. She runs social media for Guild of One-Name Studies. Her first book on DNA and Social Media for family historians is published by THP

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