What can your ancestors’ last names tell you? There are sometimes clues — about where a surname comes from and what it means — built right into the name itself.
Let’s look at some of the more common surname suffixes, the little bits on the ends of family names that might tell you what language the name comes from and how the name came about.
The suffixes -son/-s/-kin/-kins/-ken at the end of an English name denote “son of” or “little.” Julia Roberts probably descends from someone who was, at the time surnames were being taken, the son of a man named Robert. The same with someone named Robertson. Occasionally -son was added to a mother’s given name, instead of a father’s, to form a surname. The suffix -son appeared more often in the north, while an -s more likely suggests southern or western English ancestry. Surnames ending in –ing or –kin indicate this sort of patronymic name as well. Some examples include Ewing, Harkin, Atkins, and Aiken.
A name ending in –man or –er usually reflects an occupation, as in Chapman (a shopkeeper), Bowman, Dauber (a plasterer), or Turner (someone who ran a lathe).
English name suffixes that end in –ley indicate that the original bearer lived near a woodland clearing. The ending –ton means “town,” and –ing can mean “the descendants, followers or people of” a place, as in Epping and Hastings. The suffixes -ford and -ham also denote the place a family was associated with.
The suffix –sen means “son of” in northern German names (as it does in names from the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and some other European countries). Three suffixes that often indicate a German occupational name are –er (as in Geiger, someone who played the violin), –macher (one who makes, as in Fenstermacher, a window maker), and –man/-mann (as in Kaufman, one who sells, or a merchant). The endings –burg and –thal are usually place name endings and suggest a place of origin long ago.
The patronymic naming system was in common use up to the end of the 19th century in much of Scandinavia. A child was the son of or the daughter of the father, with the resulting sufixes -son and -dotter (usually Swedish) or -sen and datter (typically Norwegian or Danish), or similar variants, such as dottir (Icelandic). Thus if the father’s name is Sven Johansson, his son’s name might be Magnus Svensson or Magnus the son of Sven. Likewise, a daughter might be named Kerstin Svensdatter or Kerstin the daughter of Sven.
The suffix –ke/-ka (Rilke, Kafka, Renke, Schoepke, etc.) usually comes from eastern Germany and what was once German territory, spreading eastward into Poland and Russia, and hints at a Slavic background. The Slavic –ke/-ka suffix means “son of,” as does the Germanic –sen/-son. But in a Slavic name, the –ke/-ka follows not a father’s given name but an occupation, characteristic, or location associated with the father (Krupke means “son of the hulking one”).
Many, or even most, Slavic last names are formed by adding possessive and other suffixes to given names or other words. An example of an occupational name is Koval or Kowal (blacksmith), which can take the suffixes –sky, -chuk, -czyk, -enko, -yov, and –ev. All mean “descendant of a blacksmith.”
This happens with given names, too. Petr or Petro (Peter), with suffixes added to mean “descendant of Peter,” becomes Petrov, Petriv, Petriw, Petrovsky, Petrovich, and Petric.
Common endings to Polish surnames include –ski/-cki-/-dzki, which can indicate a place of origin (as in actress Christine Baranski’s name); -wicz, meaning “son of”; -dzyk, -czak, -czek, -ek, -ak (a diminutive, meaning “little”). TV’s Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak (born Patrick Sajdak) has this diminutive in his name.
Polish people once used special feminine suffixes added to a woman’s surname. An unmarried woman used her father’s surname with –ówna or –‘anka at the end. A married woman or widow used her husband’s surname with the suffix –owa or –‘ina/-‘yna. This is no longer the norm, though it’s still occasionally used by older people and in rural areas.
A Polish suffix starting with a “k” generally started out as a diminutive. Calling a Polish person named Jan (John) by the nickname “Janek” or “Janko” is like calling him “Johnny.” Adding a suffix to make it “Jankowicz” turns it into a surname meaning “son of little John.” “Jankowo” is “the place of little John (or John’s son).”
Many Finnish surnames end in –nen, which most often is a diminutive meaning “little” but can also reference where a family lived. The common Finnish surname Virtanen literally means “little stream,” but as a surname, it signifies that the original family with the name lived near a little stream. Architect Eero Saarinen’s surname is in this style.
Many surnames from western Finland end in the suffix –la, which meant a place or occupation the family was associated with. The common Finnish surname Mäkelä (make means “hill”) was a family associated with a hill, and Seppälä (seppä means “smith”) was a blacksmith or lived at the house of a smith.
Spanish / Portuguese
Names formed by adding –ez/-az/-is/-oz to the end of the father’s name are Spanish and mean that when that name was formed, the original bearer was the “son of.” In Portuguese, the same suffix is spelled –es/-as/-is/-os.
Many suffixes are dependent on whether the root word ended in a vowel or consonant, while many are also gender-specific. There
is much more your name might tell you, and exploring more about your own surname suffixes can greatly enhance your ancestral research.