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Changes of Surnames and Forenames

Here at Surname Research we are always interested in new Surname news. Changes in the spelling of surnames (forenames too) have been very common in the early 19th century, and have continued well into the 20th century.

You'd think that Surnames only change, but make sure to check Forenames as well which often get switched around too. Many people invented themselves middle names when they became popular around the turn of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, as long as you're aware of all these things they shouldn't hinder your research. But much more difficult for researchers to overcome is a name change, where one surname is replaced with another.

There are any number of reasons why somebody might change their name, many of them perfectly innocent - for example, some people simply got fed up with others misspelling or mispronouncing their surname.

These days you couldn't hope to do it without going through some legal formalities - you'd never convince your bank, for a start - but in times gone by you could change your name without any paperwork whatsoever. Nevertheless even then some people did execute a deed poll, and you can read about the records that still exist in this interesting online leaflet at the National Archives site.

Newspaper archives online - Latest Genealogy Release

Here at Surname Research we love a whole range of Genealogy records and we are going to start reporting on these as and when they are launched..

Just in - Local and national newspapers can be a great source of information for budding or experienced family historians, as they often tell us far more than the bare bone facts that we find on certificates and census returns.

Now that many newspapers can be searched online it is a lot easier to track down many paper based articles - and often the findings can be nice and unexpected, because newspapers don't just cover items such as disasters, court cases, and scandals, they also cover sporting events and flower shows, and publish letters from readers (regional and global dependant on the paper). Your local library may well provide free access to newspaper archives - often at home, as well as in the library. For example, in Essex anyone with a library card can search The Times (1785-1985), the Guardian and Observer (1791-2003), and the 19th Century British Library collection from the comfort of their own home. There are many other libraries that offer similar facilities with large libraries like the British Library in London being a great starting point (as well as your local libraries) - why not check what is available in your area?

Searching Surnames

For decades there has been one surefire method for succeeding in genealogical research—communication. Long before the Internet, even before the telephone, successful genealogists knew that good communication skills were necessary to acquire family information, and the family historian would work hard to find and correspond with other individuals who were researching the same family lines.

Surname Family History Facts

Now, in the twenty-first century, the concept of correspondence also applies to the Internet. E-mail, message boards, chat rooms, and other virtual meeting spaces make it fast and easy to communicate with researchers whose family lines intersect with our own. But there is still one communication route on the Internet that can be easily overlooked by the beginning researcher—surname lists.

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What Is a Surname List?

Surname lists and surname registers allow researchers to link their contact information with the surnames they're researching, as well as with other information including migration patterns of the family line, the earliest date associated with research on a particular family line, and the latest date associated with that same research. The result is an easily-scanned list that includes contact information for people conducting similar surname research.

This site, like the the most popular surname list, RootsWeb Surname List (RSL), aims at pulling together the millions of surnames submitted by genealogists every day. Each surname entry found in Surname Research links you directly to the submitter of the information and their work on that particular surname.

In addition to this site and RootsWeb, there are other sites where researchers can search for the surnames they are researching, including various GenWeb sites such as or

Search over 7 Censuses ALL on today
1901 Census England Wales Channel Islands Isle of Man Scotland
1891 Census England Wales Channel Islands Isle of Man Scotland
1881 Census - Free England Wales Channel Islands Isle of Man Scotland
1871 Census England Wales Channel Islands Isle of Man Scotland
1861 Census England Wales Channel Islands Isle of Man Scotland
1851 Census England Wales Channel Islands Isle of Man Scotland
1841 Census England Wales Channel Islands Isle of Man Scotland


Anatomy of a Surname

A surname, or family name, can be defined as a legal identification tag which is transmitted by family members from generation to generation. The use of a surname is a comparatively recent phenomenon.1 Surnames were adopted in order to legally distinguish two individuals with the same given name. By surname, we mean a fixed name by which that particular individual is known.2

Different areas of the world adopted surnames at different periods in time. For example, surnames were commonly used two thousand years ago in areas occupied or influenced by the Romans. Other areas of the world were slower to begin using surnames, but they were coming into regular use by the time of the Middle Ages, first by the nobility, then by the gentry. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Ireland was one of the first countries to adopt hereditary surnames, and Irish surnames are found as early as the tenth century.3
Origins of Surnames

Surnames are generally derived from one of four sources: the name of the person's father (patronymic), the person's locality, the person's occupation, or a descriptive nickname for the person. When they were created, they answered one of the following questions: Who is this person's father? Where is this person from? What does this person do for a living? What is his or her most prominent feature?

The patronymic name suggests the name of the father or grandfather by the use of some form of "of." In Ireland, "Mac" means "son of," while "O" means "grandson of." When "d’" or "di" is found in an Italian surname, it signifies "son of." In Czechoslovakia, Pavlov is the "son of Paul." This naming pattern can be seen clearly in Sweden, where each subsequent generation followed suit: Hans Peterson would be the son of Peter; Hans Peterson's son would be called Jan Hansen. (On the female side, the daughter of Hans would be called Hansdotter.) A similar situation can be found in the New World, in naming patterns in Dutch New Amsterdam.4 Some common patronymics are Robertson, Anderson, Williamson, and Johnson.

Place names were often taken as a surname. They were derived from the name of the place where one resided or from a description of the place. Mokotoff is from the Russian village of Mokotow; the Irish Slattery is originally from Ballyslattery in east County Clare. More than half the English surnames used today derive from geographic descriptions, such as Churchill. Various suffixes which indicate a topographical feature are lee (meadow), bank, don (town), field, house, and thorp (village).

Occupations also helped distinguish one person from another. John Miller may have owned the mill in the same town where John Smith was the local blacksmith. Bedell was the policeman of the village; Fletcher was the arrow-maker. You will often find names which describe ancestors' vocations, such as Baker, Shepherd, Carpenter, and Wright.

Sometimes nicknames became surnames. These types of surnames were often used to describe something unusual about an ancestor's physique. Small and Petit are obvious examples, as is Blackbeard.

1. Fucilla, Joseph Guerin. Our Italian Surnames. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1987.
2. Pine, L. G. The Story of Surnames. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1967.
3. Smith, Elsdon C. The Story of Our Names. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950.
4. Bailey, Rosalie Fellows. Dutch Systems in Family Naming: New York, New Jersey. NGS Genealogical Publications No. 12. Washington, D.C.: National Genealogical Society, 1954.



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