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What does my last name mean?

Your last name means something -- learn how to research your background.

Researching what your name might mean can be entertaining. [© Jupiter Images, 2010]
© Jupiter Images, 2010
Researching what your name might mean can be entertaining.

Have you ever wondered what your last name means? Youre not alone. Knowing what your last name means can shed light on where your ancestors came from, what they did for a living or even what they looked like. This article will provide some tips for researching what your last name means and discuss the meanings of some popular last names.

Last Names in History

When you look at world history, last names, or surnames, are a relatively new phenomenon. They were created to help distinguish between two people with the same first name. Approximately 5,000 years ago, the Chinese were one of the first groups of people to use last names.

The use of last names in Europe began around the 10th century in Ireland. There are four historical sources for last names: the father's name, occupation, locale, and personal characteristics. Peterson, for example, is a last name that means son of Peter. Similarly, O'Donovan means son or grandson of Donovan, MacDonald means son of Donald and Lechowicz means son of Lech.

Last Names as Occupations

A last name also can signify occupational status. It's easy to guess what the last name Carpenter means -- an ancestor had a job as a carpenter. The last name Smith may mean that an ancestor was a blacksmith. Other last names describe the area where a family lived, as in Kirkpatrick (church, or kirk, of St. Patrick). The last name Churchill means just what it says: the family probably lived by a church near a hill.

Regional Last Names

Your last name can shed light on the region from which your ancestors originated. Irish surnames, like Slattery originated on Ireland's west coast. If you have an Italian last name that includes "casa," your family probably originated in Italy's Lombardy region. Finally, some last names described a person's appearance or personality. As an obvious example, your name means strong arms if your last name is Armstrong. Reid is a last name that means someone with red hair or a reddish face.

For more specific information, try visiting a library and reviewing books on onomastics, the study of names. Another option is online research. Web sites that specialize in genealogy often have information on surnames. Ancestor Search, for example, features a free, searchable online dictionary of last names. It includes the meanings of British, French, German, Hispanic, Celtic, Italian, Chinese and many other last names. On Ancestry.com you can search for your last name or find it in an alphabetical list. The results explain what a last name means, including its history, where the family lived, where they came from and even details such as their occupation or life expectancy.

Learning what your last name means is often a rewarding research project. It may even prod you to do more genealogical research on your ancestors and enable you to pass on this knowledge to future generations.

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