Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Sirens' Call of Names in Genealogical Research

Over the years, I have often been asked is I am related to other Tanners around the country. Very early on, I came to realize that having the surname "Tanner" meant little or nothing about being genealogically related. Notwithstanding my own realization the having the same or similar surname was not decisive in determining relationships, I constantly see articles, blog posts and other comments about the origin of surnames and the meaning of various surnames.

Not too long ago I wrote some posts on patronymics. Almost every culture in the world has some sort of patronymical surname system. There are still countries, such as Iceland, where patronymics are still used. In any place where patronymics are used, or even matronymics, having a surname in common is certainly no indication of relationship. However, surname patterns and concentrations of people with the same or very similar surnames in a particular geographic area can be helpful tools in some areas of genealogical inquiry.

As societies evolved around the world, identification of the individual and the ability to distinguish individuals is strongly associated with societal complexity. The various governments' ability to impose taxes, raise armies and conduct complex business transactions with written documents has driven the need to more positively identify people. In less structured societies, individuals with the same name are usually distinguished by the addition of a descriptive tag such as John the Younger or Peter the Small. In some societies, names change during the different phases of a person's life and take on religious or cultural significance.

Surnames often indicate social standing and cultural differences. In my own experience, as I live within the culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I am often asked if I am related to prominent leaders in the Church who have the same surname. I almost all such cases, I actually am related to these people for the simple reason that we share a common progenitor who joined the Church shortly after its organization.

In any given country of the world, you can determine an approximate time period when surnames became predominant. In England, for example, surnames became used in the 11th Century but were not common until well into the 16th Century. In countries such as Denmark and Sweden, patronymics were used commonly used until well into the 19th Century.

For genealogists, all of this means that names are not a reliable basis for establishing relationships and this general rule is even more restrictive when researchers begin to assume that people with the same name are the same person without other substantiating documentation.

Surnames are derived from a variety of sources:

  • Patronymics and Matronymics -- surnames derived from the given name of a parent
  • Occupation -- such as my own surname, Tanner, from the occupation
  • Topographic -- names after landscape features such as hill, lake and valley
  • Descriptive -- such as young, white, strong etc.
In today's society, both given names and surnames are sometimes simply made up or created. We have a tradition in Utah of having very innovative names. Here is a video that you might enjoy showing the variety of Utah names:

I hope that this short video helps you to not put too much confidence in either common surnames for identification or spelling or any other unreliable method of identifying your ancestors.

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