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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Patronymics in the British Islands and Ireland

What do the names Anderson, Jones, McDonald and Adams have in common? They are all derived from patronymics. Genealogists with Scandinavian ancestors soon learn about the patronymic naming system where the father's first or given name is used to create the children's surname with a pattern of changes in each generation. For example Jens Pedersen has a male child and names him Ove. The son's name becomes Ove Jensen. For a female child named Anne, the name becomes Anne Jensdatter. Initially, this changing name pattern seems strange to English speaking genealogists, but after a while, the names are so predictable that they become helpful in doing research rather than a hinderance. 

What is not so well understood is that almost every country in the world has some name derived from patronymic naming systems and English is no exception. The British Islands and Ireland have a huge number of surnames that originated in patronymic patterns. Here are some examples.


We do not associate patronymics with England because this naming pattern evolved into a common pool of surnames that were derived from physical characteristics, occupations and other sources in antiquity. By the time we have commonly available records in the 1500s, most of the surnames had already shed the patronymic pattern. However, the second most common English surname is Jones and the "s" on the end signifies that the origin of this name is "John's son." See Jones Name Meaning and Jones Family History. So the surnames Johnson and Jones are really the same name spelled differently.

One common myth is that people with the same surname have to be related somehow. Although pedigree collapse usually means that many people living in the same area for a long time are likely related in some way, names do not equate to any degree of relationship. Surname spelling has changed over time and surnames were not consistently spelled in any given way until well into the 19th Century throughout Europe. Some of the silliest claims that unsophisticated researchers make are based on the way their family's surnames are spelled and insisting on relationships or denying relationships based on spelling. It is not unusual for different generations of families to change the spelling of their surnames and even that members of the same family spell their surnames differently.

All English surnames ending in -son or -s are likely derived, ultimately, from a patronymic naming pattern in the distant past. It should be obvious also that England was invaded by European Germanic Tribes usually collectively referred to as the "Anglo-Saxon" invaders. See the following for some in depth information.

Sørensen, John Kousgård. Patronymics in Denmark and England. London: Published for the College by the Viking Society for Northern Research, 1983.

Quoting from page 3 of the book:
There are three main ways in which patronymics have been formed on Germanic ground: as derivative patronymics, in which a derivative ending is attached to the father's name, e.g. Wulfung 'Wulf's son'; as inflexional patronymics, in which the father's name is added in a nominative form or a genitive form: William or Williams 'William's son'; and as compound patro­nymics, in which the father's name is compounded with a word for 'son', e.g. Williamson, Wilson 'Will(iam)'s son'. Several of these patronymics survive to the present day in fossilised form as surnames.
For a scholarly treatise on the subject see:

Reaney, Percy H. The Origin of English Surnames. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1967.

The most common Scottish surnames are almost the same as those in England. But there are some Scottish surnames that date back to their Celtic origins. Surnames became common in Scotland around the 12th Century. In fact, the surnames in Scotland have been formed from a melting pot of Irish Celtic through the Gaelic language and the original Pict inhabitants, overlaid with English and a bit of Norse. Common surnames such as Peterson, Donaldson and Johnson are an inheritance of the pre-15th Century naming patterns.  But the most distinctively Scottish patronymic surnames utilize the prefix Mac- or Mc-, both of which signify the "son of..." So MacDonald is the "the son of Donald" etc.

If your family came from Scotland, you could run into the patronymic generational changes as late as the 19th Century.

Quoting from the website article on "Scottish Surnames and Variants" concerning female names:
The system was applied to daughters’ names too, with the girl adopting the father’s forename with “daughter” applied to the end of the name. The “daughter” suffix was habitually abbreviated in the records, e.g. Janet Adamsdaughter becomes Janet Adamsdaur, or Adamsdr or Adamsd. An entry from the Lerwick OPR in 1734, neatly illustrates the effect of patronymics with the birth/baptism of William Laurenceson to Laur. Erasmuson and Katharine Nicollsdr.
 For reference, see the following:

Dorward, David. Scottish Surnames. Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 2003.


As outlined in on the website in an article entitled "Welsh Patronymics,"
Welsh patronymic surnames take on three forms: 
1. A masculine name as it is (particularly common for masculine names ending in “s”, though not always that way). Examples: James, Thomas, Lewis, George, Owen, Griffith, Morgan. 
2. A masculine name followed by a possessive “s.” Examples: Williams, Jones, Evans, Edwards, Matthews, Roberts, Hughes, Harris (son of Harry), Davies or Davis (son of David/Dafydd). 
3. A masculine name beginning with the prefix “ap” or “ab” (the “a” is usually dropped in the modern form). Examples: Powell (ap Howell), Pritchard (ap Richard), Price (ap Rhys), Bowen (ab Owen), Bevan (ab Evan), Pugh (ap Hugh).
I have run into the "ap" lineages is some of my own research. It is also noted in the article that Welsh patronymics persisted well into the 19th Century. It is interesting that my ancestral line the "Morgan" family who ultimately came from Wales, used this derivative patronymic. As indicated by the Morgan Family History on,
Morgan Name Meaning 
Welsh: from the Old Welsh personal name Morcant, which is of uncertain but ancient etymology.Irish: importation of the Welsh surname, to which has been assimilated more than one Gaelic surname, notably Ó Muireagáin (see Merrigan).Scottish: of uncertain origin; probably from a Gaelic personal name cognate with Welsh Morcant.
See the following for reference:

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Welsh Patronymics & Place Names in Wales and Monmouthshire. Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.A.: Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1967.


After what I have written about England, Scotland and Wales, you can probably guess that Ireland also has a long tradition of patronymics. In fact, nearly all Gaelic surnames are derived from a patronymic naming pattern. Like Scotland, the Irish use the prefix Mac- or Mc- (Mag- before vowels) is the most common.

When these surnames were originally developed, they were formed by adding the Gaelic word mac, which means son of, to the name of the original bearer's father. For example, the surname MacDonnell literally means son of Donnell. 
In later times, these prefixes were also added to the occupation or nickname of the bearer's father. For example, MacWard means son of the bard and MacDowell means son of the black stranger. Numerous variations of this prefix emerged, for a number of reasons. It was rendered Mag before vowels and aspirated consonants. 
Historical records concerning Irish and Scottish names reveal that the common prefix Mc and the less common prefixes M' and Mcc developed as abbreviations of the original Gaelic prefix Mac. Thus, the popular beliefs that Mc is a distinctively Irish prefix while Mac is exclusively Scottish, and that one prefix is used by Catholic families while the other one is specifically Protestant are erroneous.
Another cherished genealogical myth is put to rest.

I would refer you to the above article for a rather lengthy explanation of the relationship of clan names and patronymics to both male and female names in Ireland. This is an excellent and detailed explanation and since it is copyright protected, I will not reproduce it in its entirety.


I am certain that patronymic naming patterns are often overlooked by those who speak English as their primary language. But those claiming to have long ancestries that go back into the Middle Ages need to be aware of both patronymics and linguistic changes that affect the existing records.

1 comment:

  1. Hi James,
    I have just been reading your blog post of June 1, 2016, on Patronymics in the British Islands and Ireland and wondered if you would allow me to replicate it as an article in the next edition of The Surname Scribbler - a quarterly newsletter for members of The Surname Society.
    While the society is not in a position to pay people for articles (we are only a small organisation started just over a year ago), I would be more than willing to promote your blog as part of the article. If you would prefer to email me directly my email address is
    Thank you,
    Jennie Fairs.