What’s in a Surname?

“What’s in a name?”  Juliet’s well-known question, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, implies that a name has no meaning, therefore Romeo could give up his family’s name without affecting Romeo as a person. Despite Juliet’s assertion, names, especially surnames, tell us a whole lot about a person. If Romeo had changed his surname, as Juliet asked him to do, he would have disassociated himself from his family, making it extremely difficult to prove his paternal identity.  And Romeo’s descendants, had he changed his name and lived to have children, would have had a very difficult time growing their family tree past Romeo. As both the Montagues and the Capulets knew, a surname is very important.

Roses or bacon?

Along with a surname comes an association with a larger group of people.  Your last name says a lot about who you are and where you come from.  Names, like all other words in the English language, have meaning.  If I give you a word, such as rose, a picture forms in your head. You have already made some sort of judgment based on that one word, and all I said was rose. In fact, this particular word implies not only a flower, but a specific smell accompanying that flower, making Juliet’s reply (to her own question) that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” untrue. If I gave you the word bacon accompanying a picture of a rose, a completely different smell would come to mind.  It’s true. They’ve actually done studies on it!  This particular phenomena, connecting words to ideas and things, is called semiosis.

But words change, making the meaning derived through semiosis change along with the words themselves.  This is called etymology (the evolution of words), and this is where we run into trouble when we do genealogy. We see this in many surnames today. For example, the patronyms Johnson and Johns both indicate that an individual has a forefather by the name of John.  One name, Johnson, typically indicates Nordic ancestry, while Johns indicates Welsh ancestry.  If you can get that particular patronym far enough back on your family tree, you will actually get to that specific ancestor by the name of John. I have noticed this phenomenon in my family tree. Once we’ve reached the ancestor with the name of John, we suddenly find that John was the son of  Harold, and in the next generation back, we learn that Harold was the son of George.  This patrilineal method of naming often causes trouble when trying to figure out the matrilineal line. Didn’t John, Harold, and George have mothers too?

An ad for Grandpa Rothsprack's bakery, 1934
Grandpa Rothsprack could have been Grandpa Baker

The etymology of names is evident in other ways as well. Surnames can change from one generation to the next, indicating adoption or a move from one location to another. Sometimes it’s just the spelling that changes. Other times, the name itself changes. This doesn’t mean that I did my genealogy incorrectly, it just means that the culture surrounding name-giving in that particular locality changed.  We can also run into problems when a child is born out-of-wedlock.  These children were often denied a patrilineal name, and the maiden name of that child’s mother was adopted instead. Going even further back, there might have been no surnames at all for either gender.

Surnames do not always point directly to a specific forefather. Sometimes they indicate a locality. Other times they indicate a profession or a behavior.  Take my grandfather for example. His last name was Rothsprack, coming from the two words rot and sprach in the German language; directly translated, the name means “red speech.”  Apparently someone in my past was an annoying loudmouth. Grandpa Rothsprack was a baker by profession.  Depending on cultural practices, he could have taken the surname of Baker.  As a matter of fact, I actually found a census listing from the state of Nevada that included my grandfather’s name as William Rothsprack Baker.

Kwiatkowo-mapGive me a name, and I’ll tell you a story. Take my surname for example: Kwiatkowski. A Polish surname.  To completely understand the name, you must first understand a little Polish.  Kwiatkowski  can be broken into three parts: kwiat, kow, and ski (having absolutely nothing to do with a quiet cow on skis ). The first two parts come from the words kwiaty, meaning flowers, and kowa meaning place. In fact, there is at least one township in Poland named Kwiatkowo or Kwiatkowa. You can also find a flower shop in Warsaw called Kwiatowa. The last part of the name, ski or ska, indicates gender; ski=male and ska=female.  Kwiatkowski is the americanized version of Kwiatkowska. So in Poland, my surname would indicate that I am a woman from the place of flowers. To even further complicate things, many people will further anglicize their names upon entering the U.S.. I know of at least one relative who changed his surname to Bloom. There are also Americans with the surname of Flowers who may actually be Kwiatkowskis.

To add to this mess, many servants and slaves changed their identity, purposely or passively, by taking the surname of their masters. There could be people out there by the name of Kwiatkowski who have absolutely no Polish blood in them whatsoever. And once we get our lineage back to that particular slave or servant, where do we look for that ancestor’s parentage?  Bills of sale? Work agreements? What if no written contract existed?

So what’s in a surname?  A whole lot of stuff. Surnames tell us a lot about our past–the people who came before us, what they did, where they lived, and how they behaved.  Surnames can also make it difficult to complete a family tree.  You have to watch for changes, different spellings, translations, and reversals in order making a surname a middle name.  Understanding  how surnames work can turn the chore of digging for your family’s past into a treasure hunt–one that can reveal amazing truths about who and what your ancestors were, making that hunt a little easier.  Watch for these changes in names as you search for your ancestors, you may come up with some interesting stories to tell.

3 thoughts on “What’s in a Surname?

  1. Hi Marianne: I have a friend with Kowalski changed to Kowal for his surname. Other friends kept their “ski” suffex on their names. So glad to share our birthday for being Genabloggers together! I’ll be reading more of your posts!


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