In the name of the Father.
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A great number of the surnames we use today came from a person’s father’s given name. These are called Patronymic Surnames. In their simplest form they just present the father’s name. For example John is a surname as in the artist Augustus John, so too is Johns and more obviously Johnson which is one of the most common of English surnames. All mean “son of John”. However there are also names that have been formed from the mother’s name such as Megson, Margery or Hanna. These are called Metronymic Surnames and the first bearer was probably the son of a widow or an heiress in her own right.
The Anglo-Norman French “Fitz” was added by the Normans and by their followers in both England and Ireland. It was often bestowed by monarchs on their illegitimate sons. One of William IVs ten illegitimate children by a Mrs Jordan (a leading actress of the day) was George Fitzclarence, Earl of Munster in Ireland. Fitzroy means literally “son of the king” in Anglo-Norman French and was the name given by Charles II to his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy (1663-90). Fitzroy’s mother was The Duchess of Cleveland. He was fatally wounded at the siege of Cork. His descendants included Robert Fitzroy, the Captain of Darwin’s famous ship the Beagle on his voyage to the Galapagos Islands.
Everyone is familiar with the Scottish and Irish Mac that goes before the ancestor’s name and is equivalent to “son” in England and the O’ which means grandson or “descendant of” in Ireland. But whereas in England and Wales children inherited these names from their parents, in Gaelic speaking Scotland and Ireland this was not always the case. Tribes of families or even just groups of people living in the same locality, gathered together to make war upon each other in the glens of Scotland and throughout the length of Ireland. When they were drawn together in this way they would take the name of the chieftain who led them into battle even if there was no close blood relationship. Taking the father’s name is the typical format for surnames for the Gaelic peoples of both Scotland and Ireland. At the time when surnames were formed the Scottish and Irish were one Gaelic people. The famines in Ireland in the 19th century and the Highland clearances forced whole populations to emigrate throughout the English speaking world taking their Anglicized surnames like MacDonald, Mc Kenzie and O’Neil with them. There are now more Gaelic speakers in Eastern Canada than in Scotland and people, language and surnames have all found a new home.
Did you know:
Two American fast food giants have patronymic surnames. Everybody is familiar with the McDonalds burger chain and with the surname. Richard and Maurice Mc Donald converted their barbecue drive-in with car hops into the worlds first Mc Donald’s limited menu, self-service drive-in in 1948 in San Bernadino, California. Colonel Harland Sanders, born September 9 1890 of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame also had a hereditary surname. His surname means son of Sander which is a medieval form of Alexander.
It is not always obvious that a surname is patronymic in origin. For example Murphy, is a name often used to personify all Irishmen and it is a well founded choice in this respect. The descendants of Murchadh were originally called O’Murchadh until the name was Anglicised to Murphy. It originally meant “sea warrior” so it is appropriate that Murphys have spread so far and wide throughout the English speaking world. There are 6000 subscribers in the Irish telephone directories, 1500 in London, 900 in Chicago and 700 in Manhattan.
Not so many people are aware that there is a Welsh equivalent to Mac and “son”. This is “Ab” or “Ap” which goes before the given name Rhys to form Price, Owen to form Bowen and Richard to form Prichard for example. Nowadays the Welsh have dropped the first letter. Before this a person might be known as Richard ap Owen for example. Richard’s son Rhys would be Rhys ap Richard. When surnames became fixed Rhys Prichard would pass on his surname. Some of the most numerous of British surnames are the group of Welsh patronymics which include Jones, son of John and its variant Evan which gives us Evans as well as Thomas and of course Williams. The Welsh chose surnames almost exclusively from there father’s name, and since so few Christian names were in use, the number of surnames are similarly few. This gives rise to what seem to be whole villages filled with identically surnamed but unrelated families. The logical step adopted by the Welsh was to add another identifying name such as Jones the milk, Jones the smith and Jones the ferry for example. It might have been easier to have done this the first time around!
Surnames derived from the father are common throughout the world. These name endings are used in other countries: Danes and Norwegians: - sen, Finns: – nen, Greeks: - poulos, Spaniards: - ez, Poles:- wiecz, Russians: - ov, German: - ing or – er.
Here are ten common Scottish names from the father. They are all son of (Mac) added to a personal given name:
MacDonald, son of Donald, a world ruler
Mackenzie, son of Coinnich, a comely man
Mackay, son of a man named Aodha, a pagan fire god
Mcleod, son of Leoid. an ugly man
Mclean, son of a servant of St John
McMillan, son of a bald man
McIntosh, son of an Toisich. a leader
McGregor, son of Gregory
McIntyre, son of an tSaoir, a carpenter (that spelling is correct)
McDougall, son of Dougall, a black stranger
Ten common Irish names from the father:
Byrne, descendant of Bran, a raven
Ryan, descendant of Ryan. The meaning of this name is unknown
O’Connor, descendant of Conchobhair, a name with the elements ‘dog’ and ‘desiring’.
Murphy, descendant of a person named sea warrior
O’Malley, descendant of the nobleman
Malone, descendant of the devotee of St John
McCall, son of Cathmhaoil, a battle chief
O’Neill, descendant of Neill, a champion
O’Sullivan, descendant of Suileabhain, meaning dark eyed
O’Brien, son of Brian, an eminient person
Ten Welsh names from the father:
Jones, son of John
Evans, son of Evan, Ifan
Williams, son of William
Price, son of Rhys, fiery warrior
Powell, son of Hywel, eminent
Prichard, son of Richard
Thomas, son of Thomas
Pugh, son of Hugh
Jenkins, son Jenkin, a diminutive of John
Bowen, son of Owen, from Eugene, well born
Ten names from females:
Margery son of Margery or Margaret, a pearl
Hanna son of Hannah or Anna, God favoured child
Maggs son of Margaret
Megson son of Margaret
Jeeves son of Geneveive, woman of the people
Alison, son of Alice, a noble woman
Annis, son of Ann, a pure woman
Catlin, son of Catherine or Kathleen, pure
Grace, son of Grace
Dyott, son of Dennis, a female name in medieval England
Ten English names from the father:
Johnson, son of John
Thompson, son of Thomas
Williams, son of William
Davis, son of David
Adams, Atkins, Atkinson, son of Adam
Hodg(kin)son, son of Roger
Pearce, Pearson, Peters, son of Peter
Watkins, Watson, son of Walter
Wilson, son of William
Harris, Harrison, son of Henry
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