Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Sophie from AL. Sophie Wonders, “What does Grasnick mean” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Sophie!
Do you like social studies? Learning about the past can be so much fun. It's great to learn about where we've been and how events of the past shape those of the future.
Of course, it can be a challenge to memorize lots of dates. Plus, there are all those names to remember. George Washington. Benjamin Franklin. John F. Kennedy. Henry David Thoreau. John Quincy Adams. Adam Smith. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
How did all those people get those last names? Actually, how did you get your last name? Have you ever WONDERed about that?
Yes, you got your last name from your parents. But where did they get it? If you keep tracing things back in time, your last name had to start at some time in the distant past, right? So how did that work?
Many modern American last names — also called surnames — can be traced back to medieval Europe. That's because Europeans were some of the first people to colonize North America. In the Middle Ages, most Europeans lived in small villages separated from other villages by large tracts of farm land.
At that time, populations were small and often separated by enough distance that people didn't necessarily interact with people from other villages. Everyone knew everyone else in a particular village, so there wasn't really a need for last names.
Over time, though, villages and populations grew. People traveled more and the need to distinguish between people with the same first name arose. People began to adopt surnames to help distinguish one “John" from another “John."
Surnames had many different sources, but they can be roughly grouped into four categories: patronymic, locative, occupational or status, and nicknames. The first surnames were quite simple, but they became more diverse and complex over the years.
Patronymic names identify people as their fathers' children. For example, a father named Richard might have a son named Thomas. Thomas might have become known as Thomas Richards.
Likewise, a father named John might have had a son named Stephen. Stephen may have gone by the name Stephen Johnson, which would indicate he was the Stephen who was John's son.
Locative surnames identify people based upon where they were born, live or work or the land they own. For example, Simon York was probably the Simon who lived in the town of York. Locative names could also refer to a geographical feature. Theodore Underhill or Robert Atwood probably got their names from references to hills or woods near where they lived.
Occupational or status names were also common. They identified people based upon their jobs or social status. Thomas Smith would have been the Thomas in the village who was the blacksmith. Robert Knight might have chosen his surname to reflect his social standing as a knight.
Other common surnames were based on nicknames, which were usually adjectives that helped to describe a person in some way. These may have been based upon size (long, short, little), coloring (red, black, white), or a personality characteristic (stout, stern, jolly).