What’s in Your Family Name?

No one invented peoples’ names; names simply developed and then expanded as the world became more populated. The history of names is a comprehensive one as not only did names advance differently in every country; naming customs within those countries kept changing from generation to generation.

Before William the Conqueror set out to ‘affix England to Normandy’ people were called simple names like Fox, Wildgoose, Smalldove, Toogood ... What do you think yours might have been? I’m going with Toogood.

When standardised spelling arrived in later centuries names became more creative reflecting landscapes and trades among many other identifiable themes. Smalldove might instead now be known as Mary of the Wood and Toogood - John the Butcher. As villages and towns grew and more than one John appeared they had to find ways to differentiate the two. This gave rise to names like John, son of Robert, which eventually evolved to John Robertson and so on. Surnames became a requirement when rulers, starting back with William, began keeping census records for tax purposes.

Later on middle names further complicated things. At a time when children had a spiritual name plus a day to day name, the spiritual name was eventually adopted as a middle name. By the early part of the twentieth century, most people had middle names.

When doing your family genealogy you may find yourself hitting many roadblocks because your family name could have changed several times over the centuries. My paternal surname ‘Byrne’, Gaelic for ‘raven’, was first O’Byrne, the ‘O’ standing for ‘son of’ or ‘God’. My ancestors did however drop the ‘O’ at some point. If they were Christians they likely didn’t want to flaunt their spiritual devotion during times of religious suppression.

Have fun tracing your paternal and maternal family names to their origin; the history of these names will add a fascinating layer to your life story.

Signed: Lesley from the Newmarket (that's a current town in Ontario, Canada)