Hearts Through History Romance Writers

What’s in a Name?

by | August 13, 2013 | 6 comments

medieval pigOk, I admit it, I was a history teacher.  I taught American History and Western Civilization at the college level.  I think being a history teacher was great preparation for being a story teller.  After all, that what history is, the story of who we are and where we come from.  It’s the story of us.


You want to make the history personal to the students.  One of my favorite lectures to do this was talking about surnames in the Middle Ages.  Once the population began to grow there had to be a way to tell all the Tom, Dick and Harry’s from one another.  So surnames were added.  Names came from a variety of way.  Many from attaching the patronymic ‘son of’.  Examples: Leif Ericson (Eric’s son), George MacDonald (son of Donald), John O’Reilly (son of Reilly), Ivan Petrov (son of Petre), John Williamson (son of William). OK, you get the idea.


Some names came from where you lived.  Woods, Fields, Rivers, Bridges.  Or if your French instead of English, DuBois (the woods), DuPont (the bridge).  Who you worked for such as King (Reyes, Reyna, Roi/Roy), Bishop, Priest, Mayor, etc.


Surname also came from occupations.  Farmer, Cook, Butcher, Clerk/Clark, Fuller, Dryer, Miller, Taylor/Tailor, Cooper, Butler, Fletcher, Wright (depending on what you built – Boatwright, Wheelwright, Cartwright), etc.  All these occupations exist in languages other than English, such as the German Snyder (tailor).  And of course, the most common surname, Smith.


Some other ‘Smith” German: Schmid, Schmidt, Schmitt

 French: Lefebvre, Lefèvre, Lefeuvre, Lefébure,

Spanish: Herrera, Herrero, Ferrero,

Portuguese: Ferreiro, Ferreira

Italian: Ferraro, Ferrari  (Yes, that fancy sports car the guys always wanted is a ‘Smith’)


One of my family names is Palmer – which means at one time, some of my ancestors made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.


Do any of you have great stories of your family names?


  1. Ella Quinn

    We have Carpenters, Ostranders (that one is easy, it was created by an ancestor moving to the east side of the river) Quinns, Brennans, and Kennedys. Not to mention several Dutch names.

  2. Ally Broadfield

    Great post, Terry. My mother’s maiden name is a town in Germany (Westerburg). Unfortunately, my grandfather cut off all ties with his German relatives (one of whom was a Nazi general) after being shot down over Holland during the war and being held in a German prison camp. But it is an example of a place name. 🙂

  3. Beverly (Briscoe) Ovalle

    My maiden name means birch wood so I can only imagine that that is where my ancestors live. Ironic as I am allergic to birch trees!

  4. Kary Rader

    What a great post! I love the middle ages and learning about history is facinating! thanks for sharing.

  5. Angelina Barbin

    Very interesting post. My maiden name is Radacy and all I know is my father told me the spelling was changed when one of my ancestors came over from Europe. I guess I should try to find the original surname.

  6. Barb Bettis

    Love the post. With a maiden name of Smith, I think I prefer Lefèvre, Although I wouldn’t scoff at a connection to ‘Ferrari.” LOL. We also had King, Cunningham, Goebel, O’Hara–really from all over.



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