Naming Conventions

Initially, people were called by their first name and did not have a surname. Surnames were created to differentiate people who had the same first name. Thus two Johns in a village were identified by calling one John the Blacksmith and the other John Williams son. After time, John the blacksmith becme known as John Smith and John, William's son, became known as John Williamson or even, John Williams. Places were also used as a surname such as in the case of my own surname Gidley. Originally the town or more precicely, the Gidleigh Castle led to people being given the surname Gidleigh from where they came.

There are four basic sources for surnames.

Surnames Origins


Patronymics is a naming convention whereby the children of a marriage take their father's name, first or last, as their surname.

The patronymics first name naming convention has been in use in a variety of English, Welsh, Spanish, Slavic, and Scandinavian countries.

Let's say we had an English family in which the father's name was "John Davis". Let also say that he and his wife had a son. Now, if this family were using the patronymics naming convention, John's son's name could include John's first name, or his last name of "Davis". Because of patronymics, John Davis's son would be named something like "Evan John", "Evan Johns","Evan Johnes", or "Evan Davis".

This is a very simplified example of the name and language variations related to patronymics, but you can easily see how patronymics works as a naming convention. You can also see what the challenges are as it relates to family research.

In England and Wales, patronymics using the first name as a surname, was a culturally accepted naming convention up until the 16th and 17th centuries, although you will still find some use of it in Wales today. The English had actually embraced the more familiar last name, naming convention earlier than the 16th and 17th centuries.

In Wales though, before the "Act of Union" of 1536, all Welsh people used first name patronymics as the sole way of naming children. After that date, the English culture slowly melded into the Welsh culture and, as a result, the Welsh began to adopt the more "anglicized" approach to naming children. But this did not happen overnight and it took the Welsh a very long time to accept and adopt this new anglicized naming convention.

The important point here is that if you are searching for a Jones ancestor born in the UK earlier than the mid 19th century, be mindful that first name patronymics could be a factor. You may find that the father of that ancestor that you are looking for may not have the same last name as the individual you are researching.


Matronymics is the naming convention whereby the children of a marriage take their mother's first or maiden name as their surname. In a similar way to patronymics, the children of Mary Davis, who was married to John Smith could have the surname Mary or Davis after their mother.

Geographical and Place names

Geographical places such as village or towns can be taken as surnames. London for example. Physical places such as a ford in the river (Ford) or a place description such as creek (Creek) can become a surname.

Descriptive and characteristic surnames

Often, the description or characteristics of individuals became a surname. Terms such as short, long, strong and bright all eventually became surnames.

Occupational surnames

Many surnames are derivatives of an individuals occupation. Names such as Smith, Joiner, Carpenter and Baker to name a few are all derived from a persobn's occupation.

Surname variations

Surnames can have many variants. For instance the surname Jennex has the following variants

Originally spelled Shenig the surname became Jennex, the anglicised version of the surname. Consider spelling that was changed by someone of a differnet ethnicity who spelled the name as they understood it to be spelled in their own language. Guillaume is often written as William.

Your given names and surname may be common or scarce. Often depending on culture profession and traditions, given names may include surnames of ancestors.

John Gundry Gidley, "Gundry" is a surname of an ancestor
James Murphy Jones, James Murphy was an ancestor of a new individual with surname Jones and in his honour his name was given to a descendant.

Also, it is very common for a father or a mother to have children named after them. Another practice is to name a child after a sibling that has died. Having two Mary Janes in the family is not necessarily an individual that is a duplicate; the first may have died before the second Mary Jane was born. When searching for an ancestor, pay attention to the oldest children in their family, his or her first name may have been given to one of the children.

Many ethnic groups have very different naming conventions such as the surname and given name are reversed, or reversed in every new generation such that the given name becomes the surname. (See patronymics and matronymics below)

The French had a practice where a “dit” name was added such as Pierre Lalonde dit LaFrance. Sometimes the surname in this case may change to LaFrance and drop the original Lalonde after as little as one generation. One day Pierre Lalonde, next day Pierre LaFrance - same individual.

Anglicize a surname so that it is more readily accepted in an English community. I had an uncle whose surname was Reweyka who felt that on his way from Saskatchewan, Canada to Ontario in search of work during the depression that a surname like Redvers (a town he had passed through) would be more favorable when searching for work. Now, his children and grandchildren bear his new surname, Redvers.

Many names both forenames and surnames have been misspelled.

Maiden Names

To help your research, here are 10 things you may want to know about women’s maiden names

Use the above to your advantage and widen your tough searches to include tools that take the above into consideration.

Why not honour your ancestors, give your children some of their names.

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