Words > What does your name mean? It might be more obvious than you think

What does your name mean? It might be more obvious than you think

"What does my name mean?" is a highly popular Google search, and for good reason. We all want to know more about where we came from, and the meaning of our last names can be a big clue. Start your search here.

Name meanings

Last name origin is now a topic of significant study. Personal identifying names are found in every known culture, and they often pass from one language to another. Hence the occurrence of Native American place names throughout the United States and the occurrence among American families of names of various linguistic origins (e.g., Roosevelt, Hoover, La Follette, La Guardia). The use of personal names apparently began at a very early stage in human history, with single names of persons presumably coming into use earlier than double ones; in the Bible, double names are mainly confined to those who have common forenames, e.g., Judas Barsabas and Mary Magdalene. Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian names were generally formed of two common words, e.g., Hrothgar (Roger) meaning "fame-spear."

Last Names in English

Surnames developed in the late Middle Ages. Apart from patronymics (Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Harrison), there are a variety of last name origins:

  • places (Lincoln, Garfield, Cleveland)
  • trades (Tyler, Taylor),
  • personal traits (Stout, Black),
  • calendar (Noël, May)

The Irish Mac, meaning "son," and ua, meaning "grandson," were attached to family and clan names as Mac, Mc, or M' and O' respectively. The O' was apparently not used in Scotland.

The Welsh, in translating their patronymic (ap=son of) settled on English forms ending in s, hence Welsh names such as Davis (from David) and Jones (from John).

Surnames in Other Languages and Cultures

In Icelandic, the surname is patronymic, and it changes from generation to generation.

The French de, when written separately, like German von, is deemed to mark a noble name.

Although in most European cultures the surname follows the given name, Hungarian names tend to reverse this order, as do names in Chinese, Japanese, and other languages.

Spanish practice varies by country; one common usage gives a surname combining those of each parent, e.g., Serrano y Domínguez or Serrano Domínguez, for one whose father was a Serrano and mother a Domínguez.

In Russian, the middle name consists of the father's forename with a patronymic suffix, e.g., Nikolayevich.

In the Roman republic, three names were used, the forename (praenomen), of which there were fewer than 20; the gens or tribe name (nomen); and finally the family name (cognomen); e.g., Caius Julius Caesar, or Caius of the Caesar family of the Julian gens. An additional name (agnomen) might be added as a nickname or honor, e.g., Africanus, for victory in Africa, in the case of Scipio.

Amharic names are concatenations of the child's given name and the father's given name.

Native American names often referred to elements in nature or attributed special traits to the person.

Surnames and Marriage in the West

In the Western world, a woman traditionally adopted the family name of her husband at the time of her marriage. Since the mid-20th century, women in the United States have increasingly adopted the practice of retaining their maiden, or parental, surname beyond the time of marriage; other women and some couples have adopted surnames that combine those of each partner.

Naming and Tradition

In many cultures, the name is of supernatural significance. Besides animistic commonplaces such as naming a child after a lucky person or a wily animal, there are widespread taboo practices, such as not naming a child after a living relative or changing the name on the death of a namesake or avoiding the name of a family totem. In some cultures, the name given the child at birth is temporary and is replaced with another at puberty, or whenever the individual attains a new age set.

Naming and Religion

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the name has great significance, especially in the case of divine names; thus Jews did not utter the name of God. The ancient Hebrew ben (son of) was affixed to the father's given name to form a family name, although in some religious practices, a child was referred to by a formula that substituted the mother's given name for the father's. Christians have traditionally baptized children with an appropriately Christian name, especially the name of a saint, henceforth the patron; an additional name is taken at confirmation. The Puritans discouraged the use of any but biblical first names. The practice of changing names by court action is commonly adopted in order to afford a clear record.

What does your name mean?

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