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I often find myself pulling my hair out after fumbling with the various spellings of ancestral surnames. All family historians experience it; coming upon documents that present their ancestors with surnames spelled ever so slightly from other records. And as I struggled with such an issue this past weekend, I pondered the evolution of surnames; discovering intriguing and sometimes amusing facts.

The use of surnames is a fairly modern phenomenon. During the dark ages and biblical times, people were typically referred to by their given names; distinguishing them by their locality such as "Jesus of Nazareth" or "Leonardo De Vinci." But the world grew and the use of a surname became necessary in order to identify individuals.

Many surnames were patronymic: a derivative of the person's father's given name such as Johnson (son of John) or they evolved from family occupations such as Carpenter or Squire. And even geographical or place names were provided like Brook, Lake or Rivers.

Nicknames of a person's physical characteristics or personality traits like Stern or Gentile became common as well as individuals named after animals such as Fox or Bear.

And then there is the issue of the spelling of a surname. How many times have we run across census records only to find that our ancestral surname is spelled incorrectly? The fact is, the consistent spelling of words is a recent trend; only practiced within the last 100 or so years.

Surname spellings changed frequently, dependent on how they were pronounced. The Ellis Island officials often changed the spellings of the surnames of immigrants as they processed their records; scripting them with a "new world" spelling.

So, though fun to ponder, how does any of this really help with our genealogical search?

Studying the meaning and evolution of an ancestral surname can provide clues to further your research. And recently, while I was in another mad hair-tasseled frenzy to learn about one of my ancestors, I stumbled upon the Internet Surname Database: a well developed website providing captivating historical summaries of thousands of surnames.

I found that my Matthews surname was English and Scottish and that Captain Samuel Matthews was one of the earliest settlers in the New World. Another one of my surnames, Jack, evolved from the French name Jacques and John Jack was one of the first settlers in America. And Beatty was a boundary name, equal in both England and Scotland.

And then there is my maiden name, Capps. The surname I was born with and the one that is closest to my identity. As one would expect, the English name was occupational; given to someone who was a "maker of caps and hats." The Capps name was also patronymic, meaning the "son of Capp."

But most amusing was the use of the Capps surname as a nickname: given to "someone who wore a particularly noticeable cap or hat!"

And so, I will continue to utilize the Internet Surname Database; adding it to my vast array of bookmarks for future genealogical exploration. And who knows,  rather that "pulling my hair out" over frustrating misspellings of ancestral surnames; I will instead sit pompous wearing a fabulously, flamboyant hat!

Proudly relishing in the history of my birth surname.

Keep searching for answers,

Cheryl
(Source: AAG International Research)
 


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