About Surnames

Family surnames are a curious thing. If you think back to early human history people used name to identify each other. So rather than addressing someone as ‘Hoi, caveman 1’ or ‘Excuse me, caveman 2’ we humans decided that it was better to use a unique (ish) name to help improve things. 


Of course with a bit of love interest man meets women and join to create a family. Pre-empting the process of normalisation in relational database design by many thousands of years it seems that we decided to give the joined group entity a collective name. Hence was born the concept of a family name... or surname.


The Family Name

This instantly gave us a problem: Two people; two surnames name and one family. Although you have to ask 'where did the man and the women get their family names  from?'.
Someone (a male no doubt) in their infinite wisdom decided that we could only have one family name and that the new family entry would inherit the man's surname. 


That's it no: questions asked: decision made. The woman would have to change her name and adopt the new family name. No neutrality or equality here. The man's name was now the family name; officially. Well at least in western cultures it was. 


Tracking the family name

So tracing your lineage now become doubly difficult as female names were subsequently erased from history as they adopted (or were told to adopt) the man's family name. This take was already hard with the scarcity of historical records of any sort, but with successively disappearing female names it is now much more messy.


Surname Authority

Even if we guessed what the family was it would likely have been altered by someone for some reason, so as to render it illegible nowadays, Think of the number of people who slightly or significantly changed their surname or both first name and surname for one reason or another. Maybe to hide a dodgy reputation in the past, or to dissociate from less savoury family members....who knows?


Maybe you landed a new town, area, or country and didn’t want to be associated wth the unsavoury people who also shared the name. Perhaps it was to disguise a name which sounded odd or was difficult to spell. Family names can change for the oddest of reasons. 


Family Names of Immigrants

Some people, for example those who emigrated to British colonies, faced an even more difficult task in keeping track of the family name. Imagine Ellis Island in New York City some years ago, which was where thousand of immigrants to the new world (the USA), were processed at border control. 


The arrivals hall was a huge hall in the scale of a European Church or Victorian Prison. It is a very noisy place with lots of hard surfaces and tiles making it a huge reverberation/echo chamber. You can imagine the chaos with thousands of people arriving everyday from all over  the world. Noises of people, boats, babies crying, people coughing and puking after 6 weeks on a leaky boat crossing the Atlantic and dying of typhoid. 


Picture the scene with queue of immigrants all standing waiting impatiently to enter the land of milk and honey to make their fortune, not knowing if they were even going be admitted due to a bureaucratic slip up, incorrect paperwork, illness or the whim of some American border patrol officer (who only arrived a month before you did from Italy and doesn’t speak English)


Can you imagine that conversation and filling out immigration forms among the mayhem.  An Italian, who hardly speaks english, and has just arrived in the US questioning a Scots family; the MacSporrans from Auchtermuchty. The accent, the noise, the bureaucracy, the illness, frustration, must have changed a few names. I’m sure many McSporrans became Smiths or McTavish became Jones of whatever the scribble on the paper looked or sounded like.


It probably got worse. Can you imagine the conversation when the Italian jobsworth interviewed some Jewish family extricated from Europe or some Greek, Hungarian or Macedonian family?


Non English Names

 UK based names were bad enough but when you consider the subtleties that go with European language with its ornaments like, umlauts, cedillas and other inflexions it’s a recipe for a simple name change just to get by. Either you change it deliberately to get through the doors or the border patrol guy writes whatever he hears or is able to spell. 


Hence may surnames were possibly modified by varying amounts from the change of a letter to being completely rewritten.

And, of course, what was written on your papers was now your official name. You can see how easy it was to change a family name and how the lineage can easily be altered or lost completely.  


So bear that in mind when researching your name. - things are not always as they seem. Etymology is not an exact science.  Even authoritative sources are not necessarily authoritative sources.


Family names of US and Canadian Immigrants 

Many immigrants (particularly in the USA and maybe Canada) possibly have surnames resulting form this scenario or even  where a group of people were subsequently renamed after the name of the village where the originated from (Lemke in Germany). 


Arguably a Customs Officer thought he needed to get home for dinner and thought he would process this unwieldy group of German immigrants quickly. Rather than go through the pain (for everyone) of establishing surnames it was easier to call everyone John Lemke. 


Ancient History

Even further back in history (history indeed repeating itself) with everybody invading everyone else property and lands, changing cultures, names and rules them marrying the women and starting all over. Think of all the intermixing cultures with invaders such as the Moors, Vandals, Goths, Greeks, Romans, Normans,…. The list goes on


So there you have at least one scenario about how family surnames can change in an instant or a whim.


Who do you think you might be

Notwithstanding the above, your name is your name. And within reason you can decide how authentic your story is. Whatever you decide, find or can prove finding out anything about your past will likely be a fascinating and rewarding journey. Even if you are not particularly interested or nostalgic we all have a wee bit of romanticism associated with our past and what it makes us today.