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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
Beth's Weekly Moultrie Observer Column - Week 52
(This appears here courtesy of The Moultrie Observer)

   Here’s a new word for us: onomastics.  Onomastics is the study of surnames, their spelling and meaning.  Some Chinese surnames are thousands of years old as surnames are found in that culture about 2852 BC.  In China, the surname is placed first, then a generation name and then the given name last.

   The Romans had only one name originally.  Later they used three names: the given name first, followed by the clan designation and lastly, the family name.

   Some Romans added a fourth name commemorating a remarkable action or event.  When the Roman Empire declined, single names were again customary as family names became confused.

   During the Middle Ages, a single given name was used.  Gradually, another name was added, which did not apply to families or to heritage.

   The modern hereditary use of surnames originated among the Venetian aristocracy in Italy somewhere between 900 – 1000 AD.  The Crusaders soon spread this custom throughout Europe as they traveled home from the Holy Land.

   The passing on of a surname soon became a matter of pride.

   It became necessary as activities of government expanded from taxation, exaction of military service, etc., to identify individuals accurately.  There were just too many people for personal names to distinguish people for administrative and social purposes.

   By about 1450, most people had fixed hereditary surnames.  This surname identified the family, was a link to the past and preserved the family’s identity in the future.

   It was a matter of family pride to keep surnames.  Having no male descendants to pass on the surname was a cause of regret.

   Surnames were first used by wealthy landowners and nobility.  Later they were used by commoners and merchants, working and middle classes seeking status.

   Spelling and meaning changed or were lost over the years.  Some names were spelled according to the way the name sounded.

   Occupation, location, father’s name and characteristics determined surnames.  Occupational surnames could be Cook, Carpenter, Miller, Taylor, etc.  Location names were names such as Meadows, Brook, Overhill, …and names ending in ham, wick, stead, wood, bury, etc.

   Patronymic – or father’s name, usually ended in son, sen, poulos…or had prefixes such as Mac and Fitz (both meaning “son of.”)

   You might find characteristics surnames such as Short, Small, Little, Long, Smart, Longfellow, Armstrong, etc.

   The first surnames to become hereditary were thought to be locational.  Occupational surnames came later and those of the father’s name came last.

   Characteristic names could be uncomplimentary with names such as Stout (meaning “fat fellow,”) or Cruickshanks or Straddling – meaning bowed legs, etc.

   Some surnames have more than one meaning or origin.  For example, the name “Bell” could mean bellringer or beautiful one.

    Do you know the origins of your own family names?  Clues can be found to aid in our genealogy by understanding onomastics!

   We are so fortunate to have, in Moultrie, The Ellen Payne Genealogy Library.  Researchers travel from all over the United States – and beyond – to unravel their own family mysteries right here.  You’re invited to come and work on your own family history at The Odom Library.

   If you are interested in genealogy, be sure and subscribe to our publication, The Family Tree.  Amazingly, it is the largest genealogical publication in the world – and, at the same time, the largest Scottish publication in the world outside Scotland!

   Just come by the library and ask to be put on the mailing list.  There’s no charge, although we surely do appreciate postage contributions!

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