Investigating Your Ancestry: The Meaning and Origins Of Your Last Name

Finding out about our ancestry is a fascinating pursuit, and our keenness to discover more about our distant past is evidenced by the phenomenal popularity of family trees and ancestry websites and tools that can help us track our forebears and piece together the stories of their lives.

Below we discover how best to find out the meaning and origin of your last name and begin an adventure into your ancestry, as well as the next steps to take if you want to know more!

Finding The Origin And Meaning Of Your Last Name

It’s easy to find out more about your last name, including where it originated and its meaning. There are many genealogy search tools online, as well as dedicated genealogy websites, that can give you this information with just a few clicks of the mouse.

Census information is also a rich source of information on last names; among many other details, census records show the popularity of names over the years, making it possible to ‘track’ their migration (and that of the people they belonged to) with regards to both time and geographical area.

Most Popular Last Names In America

When it comes to American last names, the most common is Smith, followed by Johnson, Williams, Brown, and Jones. Also featured in the top ten are Martinez and Miller.

The last name Smith originated in England, where, in the past, it denoted the profession of blacksmith, while Johnson and Williams derive from patronyms or personal names, literally used as an acknowledgment of paternity. The last name Martinez is also a patronym and originates from Spain.

Other common American last names include Campbell, which originates from Scotland, and Nyguyan, from Vietnam.

Differences By State

The order in which the most common last names in America appear on the list varies from state to state. For example, Smith is much more prevalent in the eastern states of the USA, while Garcia tops the list in Texas.

In California, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Hawaii, the last name Lee is the most common, despite being number twenty-one on the overall list.

Different cities throw up key differences, too: in cities close to the border with Mexico, like El Paso and Fresno, Garcia, which is of Hispanic origin, is the most common last name.

What Last Names Reveal About Geographical Origin

As touched on above, it’s often possible to discover the ancestral heritage of last names. The vast majority of last names in America have a Middle English or Old English heritage, while a substantial amount derive from Latin and Old French.

German, Norse, Gaelic, and Greek are part of the heritage of lots of the other most common last names in America. This information can be useful if you’re interested in tracing your family tree and the potential geographical migration of your ancestors. It provides a vital clue for those seeking to uncover their genealogy.

Location and Occupation

Smith isn’t the only name that denotes the origin of a distant ancestor. Fletcher relates to the making of arrows, a Cooper was, historically, a person who made wooden barrels, casks, or vats, and Kemp denoted a skilled jouster or wrestler – it’s from the Old English ‘cempa’, which means warrior or champion.

Miller, Waller, Carter, and Fisher are other last names that would have, back in the mists of time, been used to denote the profession of the individual.

Clues about the immediate locality of our ancestors can be found in last names, too: Hill, Waters, Burrows, and Wood are all examples of this.

Last Names As Nicknames

As well as pointing to location and job, last names can sometimes be the result of a long-distant family nickname or a term used to denote a physical or moral characteristic, such as Fairchild, Goodman, and Wise.

Other last names deriving from nicknames include Blunt, which was a nickname for someone with a light complexion or fair hair (coming from the Old French ‘blunt’ which means ‘blond’), and Crane was a term for someone, usually a man, who was slender and with thin legs!

Following The Trail

Finding out more about the origins of your last name, or that of your other relatives, can be a great way to get started in discovering your family history and more branches of your family tree. This information can help you trace the potential geographical routes of your ancestors and follow their paths as they moved and married across regions – possibly even across countries and continents.

As well as digging deeper into the history of your last name, you may want to deploy other tools to assist you in uncovering more about the lives of your forebears. DNA testing is one way to get information on your ethnic background and can provide details such as where in the world your ancestors lived. Home testing kits make this a simple and cheaper option than ever before.

You could also sign-up for a specialized genealogy website that’s geared to those looking to find out more about their recent and long-distant relatives. Many have databases, helping you to find matches and potential new family members.

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