Leonardo the Goat Herder: What If Today’s Stars Made Their Livings the Way Their Ancestors Did?

Posted by Jeanie Croasmun on October 23, 2014 in Family History

Leonardo the Goat HerderSurnames are a fairly recent invention. In most European countries they became common as populations grew and people found they needed a way to distinguish William the blacksmith from William the yeoman when telling a story about one of the their neighbors, or the taxman wanted to make sure both John the baker and John who lived on the hill got dinged for his fair share.

Most European surnames come from one of a few sources. They were patronymics, based on a father or mother’s name (Will’s son became Wilson), place names (Jenny Lake), nicknames or characteristics (Richard Little), and, of course, occupations.

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Some of those occupational names are obvious even today.

Jonny Lee Miller may not know anything about grinding grain, but he probably had an ancestor back in the day who ran a mill of some sort. And someone in Carrie Fisher’s past most likely knew his away around a net or a boat.

Some don’t jump out at you until you stop to think about it. Did Donald Trump’s predecessors play a mean hand of bridge, or was there was a herald or trumpeter back in the day? (Think option 2.) Others require a little history. For example, about a century ago, coopers made barrels and casks. Nowadays they make news (Anderson) and movies (Bradley, Dominic). Instead of singing about wild horses, once upon a time, a Jagger owned or drove a team of packhorses, so he might have been a carter or peddler. The Blooms Orlando takes his last name from? Florists? Actually, the English surname Bloom more likely comes from the Middle English word blome, which was an ingot of iron, so Blooms were ironworkers.

So what about a Jackman? Someone who lifted heavy things by means of mechanical implements, right? Try a servant to someone named Jack. Jeremy Renner is a bit tougher, especially with his mixed European ancestry. But Renner may have come from an old Middle English or the Middle High German rennen, meaning “to run.” His namesake ancestor wouldn’t have been a track star, but probably a messenger of the mounted and military type.

Or you might need to know a foreign language. Leonardo DiCaprio might actually be Leonardo the Goat Herd in Italian. Or the name may not have anything to do with an occupation. It may have started as a nickname for an ancestor who looked like a goat.
Nah, couldn’t be.

—Paul Rawlins

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Past Articles

Jones: A Short History of an American Surname

Posted by Ancestry.com on October 21, 2014 in Surnames

There are a lot of Joneses because there have always been a lot of Jons. In the Middle Ages, children were given surnames related to their father’s first name, such as Williamson for the son of William, which meant that the surname changed with each generation. Jones fits into this category, modified from the Middle… Read more

7 Real Patent Medicines the FDA Would Never Approve

Posted by Ancestry.com on October 14, 2014 in Family History

Once upon a time, some of the greatest medical crises America faced included “tired blood” and “female weakness” — or so many patent medicines claimed. Between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression, Americans spent millions of dollars on heavily advertised “natural” remedies whose claims of being free of addictive substances overlooked… Read more

There Are Four Common Types of German Surnames. Which One Is Yours?

Posted by Ancestry.com on October 9, 2014 in Surnames

In German, a surname is called the “Nachname” or “Familienname.” The family name gradually started being used during the Middle Ages. Prior to that, people generally used only a given name. As the population increased, though, that population needed a way to differentiate between all those new people. Now, those surnames can help you trace your family… Read more

Hate going to the dentist? So did your ancestors.

Posted by Ancestry.com on October 9, 2014 in Family History

Neolithic-era teeth found in modern-day Pakistan show evidence of having been drilled — with drills made of flint — and in a “remarkably effective” way, according to modern researchers who studied the 9,000-year-old teeth. Which goes to show that fear of going to the dentist probably predates written history. During the early Middle Ages in… Read more