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To learn more about your family history, the natural place to start is the most obvious marker of your family: your surname. And the natural place to learn about your surname is a free Last Name Meanings and Origins search on Ancestry.
The origins and meaning of your last name can reveal a surprising amount about you and your family. Ancestry can typically tell you the ethnic origin of your surname, which you may already know. But it can also tell you if your name is occupational, habitational (based on a place), or descriptive, and you might even discover where your name originated.
Occupational names refer to names derived from jobs and trades. Some are obvious: Smith, the most common surname in the United States, means metalworker, as many people know. But the Last Name Meanings and Origins search can tell you about names related to lost occupations. Latimer, for example, was a clerk who wrote in Latin. Lorimer was a bridle and bit maker. Sometimes the occupation is still known but practiced much differently than in the past. Thus, the titular forebear of Robin Leach, former host of the show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” was likely a doctor back when medieval physicians used leeches to drain blood from the sick.
In some cases, the history and spread of a name can give concrete clues to a genealogical search. Jagger, for example, is an occupational name meaning “carter” or “peddler” in Middle English. To a Jagger researching his family roots today, the etymology of his surname is probably less interesting than the fact that all or most current holders of this English surname are probably members of a single family that emerged from Halifax, Yorkshire, in the 16th century.
Habitational names derive from the place where an ancestor lived. Their meaning can also help people locate ancestors. For example, Leach, if not referring to an early doctor, might also have referred to someone who lived near a boggy stream, or “laecc” in Old English, of Eastleach or Northleach in Gloucestershire.
Finally, descriptive names refer to nicknames that may have been bestowed on an ancestor. Genealogists suspect that surnames based on plants and animals are nicknames. Thus, “Fox” means a forefather showed cunning and wit, while “Armstrong” describes a more physical forebear.
While knowing that an ancestor once won plenty of arm wrestling matches isn’t going to help you locate your lost Old World relatives, the Last Name Meanings and Origins search is just a entry point into the 16 billion records collected, organized, and maintained by Ancestry. The Family Facts Page for any given surname even includes information on immigration and life expectancy for that name.
It’s a great place to start looking into your own past.
—Sandie Angulo Chen