American History and Genealogy Project


What's In A Name?

Individual and Family Names
By The Rev. William Cogswell, D. D.

Imago animi, vultus; vitae, Nomen est., Puteanus.

Individual Names, or Names of Individuals, were given for the distinction of persons, one from another, as Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Paul and John. Such names have always been in use, and, at the present day, are generally termed Christian or baptismal names. They were adopted originally, to a great extent, from the consideration of their signification. As an illustration of this remark, we present the following names:

First, of men; namely
Adam, earthy, taken out of the earth
Abel, just
Alexander, helper of men
Andrew, manful
Benjamin, son of the right hand
Caleb, hearty Chrysostom, golden mouth
Constantine, firm
Daniel, judgment of God
David, beloved
Edmund, happy
Edwin, happy victor
Edward, happy keeper
Ellis, (corruptly for Elias), Lord God
Erasmus, amiable
Francis, free
Frederic, rich peace
Gabriel, man of God
George, husbandman
Godfrey, God's peace
Goodrich, rich in God
Hector, defender
Humphrey, house peace
Hierome, holy name
Isaac, laughter
Israel, prevailing in the Lord
John, gracious
Joseph, increase of the Lord
Leonard, lion-hearted
Luke, luminous
Matthew, reward
Moses, drawn forth
Nathaniel, the gift of God
Neale, blackish
Nicholas, conqueror
Oswald, Steward
Paul, wonderful
Phillippe, lover of horses
Robert, famous in counsel
Roger, quiet
Reuben, vision of the son
Seaborn, born upon the sea
Sebastian, majestic
Sylvanus, woodman
Stephen, a crown
Theophilus, lover of God
Thomas, a twin
Vincent, victorious
William, a defense of many
Wilfred, much peace
Zachariah, the memory of the Lord

Secondly, of women: namely
Abigail, the father's joy

Alice, noble
Adeline, descending from nobles
Barbara, strange
Catharine, chaste
Clara, bright
Dorcas, a roebuck
Eleanor, pitiful
Eve, giving life
Florence, flourishing
Joanna, grace of the Lord
Judith, praising
Lucia, lightsome
Mary, exalted
Margarett, precious
Priscilla, ancient
Rosamund, rose of the world
Susanna, lily
Sophia, wisdom
Theodosia, God's gift
Ursula, little bear

Thus, Christian names were originally given as expressive of some circumstance of birth, personal quality possessed, good desired by parents, or some other reason. Much importance was attached to the name as indicating the fortune of the child. Hence the proverb, "Bonum nomen, bonum omen."
Family Names were given for the purpose of particularizing families. They are a sort of hereditary distinction, and arc called by the French and English, surnames, because added to Christian or baptismal names. In the early state of society among the Jews, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Germans, Gauls, Britons, indeed among every nation, no individual had more than one name; but in a more advanced or refined period, an additional name was given, in order to mark the different families to which individuals belonged, as well as to distinguish members of the same family from each other. Among the Greeks a few families at Athens and Sparta had family names. When the league was established between the Romans and the Sabines, to confirm which it was covenanted that the Romans should add Sabine names to theirs, and that the Sabines should add Roman names to theirs. These were termed nomina Gentilitia, et cognomina, as their previous names were termed praenomina. Commonly among the Romans, each person had three names; namely, a proper name (praenomen, which distinguished the individual,) the name of the clan, (nomen) and the family name, (cognomen.) Sometimes also a surname was added, which was given on account of some distinguished exploit or remarkable event. The praenomen was placed first, and usually written with one or two letters; as M. for Marcus, Q. for Quintus, Cn. for Cneius. Then followed the nomen; as Fabius, Julius, (from the clan (gens,) Fabian, Julian.) Lastly came the cognomen; as Cicero, Scipio. In the name M. Tullius Cicero, M. is the praenomen, which distinguishes him from his brother Quintus; Tullius, the nomen, which distinguishes the clan, (gens,) and Cicero, the cognomen, which shows his family. An instance of a surname, (agnomen,) is Africanus, added to Scipio; as Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus.

The Hebrews in their genealogies, instead of surnames, used the name of the father with Ben, which signifies son, as Melchi, Ben Addi; Addi, Ben Cosam; Cosam, Ben Elmadam; that is, Melchi, son of Addi; Addi, son of Cosam; Cosam, son of Elmadam. A similar practice prevailed among our English ancestors, as Ceonred Ceolwalding, Ceolwald Cuthing, Cuth Cuthwining; that is, Ceonred, son of Ceolwald, Ceolwald, son of Cuth, Cuth, son of Cuthwin, the termination or suffix, ing meaning son or offspring. In the same sense, the Welsh Britons used Ap, (son,) as Ap Owen; Owen, Ap Harry; Harry, Ap Rhese; that is, son of Owen; Owen, son of Harry; Harry, son of Rhese.

The same may be said with regard to the Scotch in the use of Mac, (son) as Donald, Mac Wharter; Wharter, Mac Dowell; Dowell, Mac Clelland; that is, Donald, son of Wharter; Wharter, son of Dowell; Dowell of Clelland. With the Irish, the expression for son is Oy or O'; as O'Neal; Neal, O'Riley; Riley, O'Brien; Brien, O'Connell; O'Hara; that is son of Neal; Neal, son of Riley; Riley, son of Brien; Brien, son of Connell; Connell, son of Hara. In like manner, the old Normans in their surnames used Fitz a corruption for Fitz. (son) as John, Fitz Robert; Robert, Fitz William; William, Fitz Hugh; Hugh, Fitz Gerald; Gerald, Fitz Herbert; Herbert, Fitz Roy.

Surnames used by the French nation about the commencement of the eleventh century,1 and by the English nation about the time of William, the Conqueror, in 1066, when the Conquest was achieved, or, as some suppose, as early as Edward, the Confessor, who began his reign in 1041. It is certain that the occasional use of surnames in England dates beyond the ingress of the Normans. But before the Conquest it was usual for persons to subscribe to deeds and all legal instruments, with a cross and a single name without a surname, in the following manner: + Ego Eadredus confirmani; + Ego Edmundus corroborani; + Ego Sigarius conclusi. In the authentic record of the Exchequer in England, called the Doomsday Book, surnames are first found in public records in established order. The Scotch date the use of surnames about the time the English do; but it is not certain that they are correct in doing it. In England these names were introduced gradually. They were first assumed by the people of the "better sort," generally, who took the names of their estates, and it was not until the reign of Edward II., (1307,) that they were "settled among the common people fully." In Germany and some kindred nations, family names were little used by the commoners before the fourteenth century. The most current opinion is, that surnames can scarcely be said to have been permanently settled before the era of the Reformation, in the sixteenth century.2

The origin of surnames is various. The greatest number, probably, are derived from towns, villages, seats or patrimonial possessions. The most ancient, says the learned Camden, are from places in Normandy, and countries adjoining it. All names having the French De, Du, Des y De la prefixed, or beginning or ending with Font, Fant, Beau, Saint, Mont, Bois, Aux, are of this description. The names of Warren, Mortimer, Percy, Devereaux, Harcourt, Tracy, Montfort, and Cayly are derived from places in Normandy. Indeed, there is scarcely a village in that country which has not given a name to some family in England. From places in France are derived the names of Courtney, Bollein, Paris, Corby, Bohun, Saint George, Saint Andrew, Cressy, Lyons, Loring,3 and Beaumont. Nearly all the towns, villages and hamlets, also, in England and Scotland, have given names to families, as Murray, Clifford, Stafford, Gordon, Douglass, Heydon, Barkeley, Leigh, Hastings, Hamleton, Booths, Clinton, Cotton, Hume, Stanhope, Sydenham, Arlington, Whitney, Wentworth, Fanshaw, Carie, Hartshorne, Gifford, Bassett, Howard, Talbot, Lovell, Tirell, Blunt, and Bissett. Most of the families in Cornwall have names, a constituent part of which is contained in the following distich:

"By Tre, Ros, Pol, Lan, Caer, and Pen.4
You may know the most Cornish men."

All names, which in England had Of set before them, which in Cheshire and the North was contracted into A, as Thomas a Dutton, John a Standish, Adam a Kirby, or which in Latin had De prefixed, were derived from places. The same may be said, to a considerable extent, of those names which had Le before them. Under the head of local names may be placed also such as Hill, Wood, Field, Pool, Pond.

Next to local names or those derived from places, the most numerous are those derived from trades or professions, as Archer, Brewer, Brazier, Baker, Carpenter, Goldsmith, Cutter, Fisher, Taylor, Potter, Smith, Saddler, Painter, Webster, Wheeler, Wright, Wheelwright, Mason, Gardner, Turner.

Some names have been assumed from office, as Chamberlain, Cooke, Marshall, Sergeant, Foster, Fowler, Page, Butler, Clarke, Proctor, Abbot, Bishop, Priest, Dean.

Names have been taken from titles of honor, dignity, or estate, as King, Prince, Lord, Baron, Knight, Squire.

Named also have been derived from bodily or mental qualities, as Goodman, Wise, Proud, Strong, Armstrong, Long, Low, Short, Little.
Periods of life have given rise to names, as Old, Young, Child, Baby.

Some names have been derived from parts of the body, as Head, Whitehead, Legge, Foot, Arm, Heart; and others from the color of complexion or dress, as White, Black, Brown, Green; and others again from fruits and flowers, as Pear, Peach, Lilly, Rose.

Many names are derived from beasts, as Lamb, Lyon, Bear, Buck, Fox, Wolf, Hog, Roe, Badger, Hind, Hare; others from birds, as Dove, Lark, Nightingale, Swallow, Peacock, Sparrow, Swan, Woodcock, Crow, Wren, Parrot; and others from fishes, as Pike, Crab, Bass, Salmon, Haddock.

A considerable number of surnames have originated from Christian names, as Francis, Leonard, Herbert, Giles, Lewis, Humphrey, James, Jacob, Daniel, Thomas, Anthony, Alexander.

The names of Corbet, Goodwin, Goodrich, Fabyan, Hervey, Howard, Osborn, Payne, Searle, Star, Swain, Wade, Warner, Hamlin, Talbot, Wade, and Maynard were formerly Christian names, and in use about the time of William the Conqueror.

Many surnames are formed by the addition of son to a Christian name, as Williamson, Robertson, Richardson, Johnson.

Nicknames or nurse-names have, in process of time, become family names: as Bill, or Billy, for William; Dick, or Dickey, for Richard.

We might proceed to give other specimens of the origin of names; but our limits will not permit us to enlarge. A sufficient number has been presented to show that it is almost indefinitely various. It is Computed that there are between thirty and forty thousand surnames in England alone. Their origin, too, is often curious. Persons fond of the study of individual or family nomenclature, will be entertained and instructed with the perusal of Camden's British Remains, Lower on English Surnames, Chambers' and Brande's Dictionaries, and the different Encyclopedias on the subject, to which we have been greatly indebted in preparing this piece.

1. Dueange says of surnames in France began about the year 987 when the barons adopted the practice of designating themselves by their estates.
2. Archaologia, Vol. XVIII., p. 108.
3. The name of Loring, though not found in the Roll of Battel Abbey by Pox, is found in Leland's copy of the Roll, to which Lower, in his Essays on English Surnames, says "The preference ought unquestionably to be conceded." The name Loring is derived from Lorraine, a province in France.
4. These words signify in their order a town, a heath, a pool, a church, a castle, a promontory.

Source: The New England Historical & Genealogical Register, Published Quarterly Under The Direction Of The New England Historic, Genealogical Society, Rev. William Cogswell, D. D., Editor. Volume I., Boston, Samuel G. Drake, Publisher, 1847, Coolidge & Wiley, Printers, 12 Water Street, Boston.

Thanks for Stopping by
Come Back Soon!!

Back to AHGP

Copyright August © 2011 - 2024 AHGP The American History and Genealogy Project.
Enjoy the work of our webmasters, provide a link, do not copy their work