The Origin and Meaning of Surnames

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Did you ever wonder about the origin and meaning of your surname? Many people do. In fact, surname research is its own separate sub-branch of genealogy, with a whole institute devoted to surname studies. Curiosity about surnames is also one of the most common reasons that people become interested and involved in genealogy.

Nearly everyone in Western society today has a surname. However, that was not always the case. Surnames only began to come into use in medieval times. They were used as a way to distinguish people with the same first name from one another as villages grew larger, and to indicate where new people were from when they arrived in a new town looking for better economic opportunities. They could also be used as an old-fashioned business card, letting others know a person’s occupation.

These are just the most common origins of surnames. Depending on the nation or geographical region where one’s ancestors originated, a surname could mean all kinds of things, including a description of someone’s physical characteristics, their religion, their nickname, and even their reputation in their village. Knowing the origin and meaning of your ancestors’ surnames can tell you a lot about them, and about your ancient medieval origins.