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Written for my granddaughter when she was fourteen.

Long ago, when there weren't so many people, everyone had just one name, such as "John" or "Mary". As there got to be more people and especially where there were multiple "Johns" and "Marys", a descriptor began to be added to distinguish between people with the same name—"John, John's son"; "Mary the weaver"; "Henry from London"; "young Barbara". That's how surnames came into being. In most parts of the world today members of a family usually all have the same surname, such as "Fish", which they share with their father's ancestors on the male side. Each individual has a first name, such as "Caitlin" that distinguishes them from other members of their immediate family. Nowadays most people in the United States and Europe also have one or more middle names, such as "Caitlin Jean ______" or "Jacob Dexter ______". The structure of people's names varies in different parts of the world. In China, for instance, the surname comes first.

Surprisingly, all surnames fit into one of only four categories:

  1. Relationship. These names, such as Johnson, McAndrew, O'Brien indicate that their bearers had an ancestor named John, Andrew, or Brien. Approximately 35% of our family names are such names, usually based on the first name of an antecedent.
  2. Occupation. About 15% of our surnames come from occupations. These names—for example, Miller, Fletcher (maker of arrows), Fish (fisherman or fish dealer), Boulanger (French for baker), Kowalski (Polish for smith)—show that there was an ancestor who practiced one of these professions.
  3. Location. The largest category—around 40%—of family names are "address" names. Such names, indicate where an ancestor of the persons who bear them lived or came from—van Beethoven (from a farm where beets were grown), Scott (from Scotland), Tedesco (Italian for "German"), Ford (lived near a place where people and animals waded a stream), or Lee (lived near a lea, or meadow if the name is English; or "plum" if it is a Chinese Lee). In olden times when most people couldn't read, inns or other buildings were frequently identified by a sign with a picture, often of some type of creature. Thus, the original bearer of the Fish surname could also have been designated as someone who lived at or near "the sign of the fish".
  4. Characteristic. These were nicknames describing (physically or otherwise) the ancestors who first bore them—Short, Whitehead (white or very blonde hair), Barbarossa (Italian for "red beard"), or Gottlieb (German for "loves God"). The remaining 10%, approximately, of family names are of this kind.

All surnames fall in one or the other of these four categories. Can you think or any exceptions? (A problem is that sometimes we can't figure out what some names mean, especially those in other languages. Another problem is that some names might have come from more than one category, such as Fish and Shidler, both of which originally could have represented either an occupation or a place.)

German Naming Practices2

When German boys or girls were baptized, they were generally, though not always, given middle names. The middle name was the one they were known by for the rest of their lives. (The Amish, however, do not use middle names.) When my immigrant Shidler ancestor arrived in Philadelphia he signed the Oath of Allegiance as "Johann Gerg Scheideler", but he was known as "George Scheidler". First names usually appeared only on official documents and were often omitted even then. Sometimes all the sons were even given the same first name! Johannes Georg, Johannes Michael, and Johannes Peter would be known as Georg, Michael, and Peter. The same family might even have a Johannes with no middle name. He would be known as Johannes.

Initials were never used. No one would sign his name as Johann G. Scheidler, or J. Georg Scheidler. Many immigrants were illiterate and their "signatures" would take this form:

His Mark
From a list of arriving passengers at the Pennsylvania Archives

where someone else wrote Jacob Hotler's name leaving space for him to make his mark. Such marks might be an initial, as in this case, or some other symbol or just an "X". This has misled some researchers into thinking they were looking at a middle initial. Often, but not always, the person who wrote the name would write "his" above and "mark" below the space for the mark.

German is a language in which all nouns have a gender—masculine, feminine, or neuter. At the time of our ancestors' immigration it was customary to give women's names a feminine ending. Thus Jacob Neff's wife's name would be written Catarina Neffin. The proper form was "-in", but it didn't always get written that way. I have seen "Margaretha Scheidlern" on a deed, and when Jacob Scheidler married Catrina Horn, he wrote it as "Hornnen" in the family bible. The practice of using feminine endings seems to have died out in most families a couple of generations after immigration.

Another practice frequently, though not universally, followed in German families was that of naming the firstborn son after the father's father and the first daughter after the mother's mother. Some went on to name the second son after the mother's father and the second daughter after the father's mother. However, this custom was less common than generally believed. In a study of 355 Mennonite families, only 26 percent, or about 1 out of 4, so named their first son.3

Through the generations most people of German descent became more "American" and less "German". Many of them tried to make their names less "German" as well. Thus spellings were simplified—Schaum became Shaum and Scheideler became Shidler, which was not a good anglicization because many mispronounce it (the pronunciation has stayed close to the original German, with a long i). Sometimes a similar-sounding English name was chosen—Berkey for Bürgi, Shutt for Schott, Culp for Kolb, Brown for Braun, Nave for Neff or Elson for Ulsen.


1 When writing this section, I referred to the New Dictionary of American Family Names, by Elsdon C. Smith, 1988 edition (Gramercy Publishing Company, New York). I also consulted Clues to Our Family Names, by Lou Stein, Heritage Books, Bowie, Maryland, 1988.

2 Based in part on the webpage with the same title at the Flory website, http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~florey; as well as on Delbert L Gratz, Was Isch Dini Nahme?—What Is Your Name?: A Collection of Swiss Family Names, Masthof Press, Morgantown, PA, 1995 (revised 1997); and on Kenneth L Smith, German Names: A Practical Guide, Masthof Press, Morgantown, PA, 2007.

3 John H. Holly, "Grandpa Junior", Mennonite Family History, Vol. 17, No. 4 (October 1998), p. 162.

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