A recent patron at the Mesa Family History Center was very interested in the origin of his surname. In researching his lineage, we discovered that his name had been spelled or misspelled in an interesting varieties of ways. Although any seasoned researcher would not blink an eye at the variation in names, especially as research goes back into the preceding centuries, most new genealogists have to come to an accommodation with this fact of life. Here are some thoughts about names that may be of assistance:
The origin of surnames
In each different part of the world, the name patterns began at a different time period. It is also notable that commoners as opposed to the nobility of countries seldom had identifiable surnames until the introduction of civil registration. In Europe, there are surnames for some of the nobility as early as the Eighth or Ninth Century, but surnames did not become common until the end of the Sixteenth Century but were used in some more industrialized countries as early as the Thirteenth Century.
Surnames were derived from a variety of sources. Most commonly names were either associated with the father's given name (patronymics), a geographic location, an occupation or a physical characteristic. Modern surnames can also be translations from other languages or descriptive names.
Most current inhabitants of industrialized countries have some sort of naming pattern that involves a given name and a surname. The order of the surname or family name and the given name may vary from the European common order of given name followed by a surname, as in the Chinese convention of having a monosyllabic family name followed by a disyllabic given name, (See Wikipedia:Chinese name). In some countries, such as Russia and other Eastern Slavic nations, an individual has three names; a given name, a patronymic and a family name or surname. (See Wikipedia:Eastern Slavic naming customs). In Spanish speaking countries, the naming patterns can vary but commonly have a simple or composite given name, followed by two family names. The first surname is traditionally the father's first surname and the second is the mother's first surname. As a note, in Spanish speaking countries women have traditionally preserved their own family name (maiden name) even after marriage. Sometimes the husband's surname will be added to the wife's name following the word "de" meaning "of" and connoting marriage. (See Wikipedia:Spanish naming customs). The current custom in many Spanish speaking countries is to allow the parents or the individual the choice of which surnames they wish to use and in what order.
In the English speaking world, the most common convention is a given name, followed by a surname. It is also common to have a middle name or at least an initial to designate one. Some of the pressure to employ middle names has come from filling out government forms that provide for a middle name.
For genealogists, it is extremely important to understand completely the naming patterns of the country of your ancestors' origin. For example, failing to understand Spanish naming patterns would make research all but impossible. Whereas research becomes much simpler in Spanish speaking countries once you recognize the patterns.
Many societies throughout the world have used patronymic naming conventions. Generally there is a word pattern or prefix or suffix to the name marking the relationship to the father or in some cases, the mother. (See Wikipedia:Matronymic). Here are some of the common patronymics from European countries.
Wales -- ap (son of) or verch/ferch (daughter of)
Spain/Portugal -- ez (son of) also es in Portuguese
Irland -- O' or Mac (son of)
Scotland -- Mac or Mc (both son and daughter)
Poland -- wicz (son of) ovna (daughter of)
Netherlands -- s, se and sen (son or daughter)
Denmark and Norway -- sen (son of) datter or dotter (daughter of)
Sweden -- son (son of) dottir (daughter of)
So for example, Jens Ovesen had a son whose name would be Lars Jensen who had a son whose name would be Jens Larsen. Mostly by the mid 1800s the patronymics had been frozen, that is they remained the same from generation to generation. This is a very simplistic explanation so watch for unforeseen variations like -son in Denmark.
Spelling is entirely arbitrary. I am familiar with families that have multiple spellings of the family name (surname) within the same family. Very few names were consistently spelled the same way all the time until well into the 1800s in Europe and the United States. Not only were there a lot of variations but there were also mis-transcriptions and other problems. Any genealogical researcher will learn rather quickly that names can and will be spelled in an endless variety of ways.