What Your Father’s Last Name Can Tell You

by Sandie Angulo Chen

In many cultures, men give not just their family name to their children but some form of their own given name. These so-called patronyms or patronymic names can help you understand your own family history and culture.

English Patronymic Surnames

Before the Norman Conquest of Britain, people did not have hereditary surnames. Instead, they went by just a first name or nickname. After 1066, the conquering Normans introduced surnames, and the practice eventually took off.

By 1400, trades, nicknames, places of origin, and fathers’ names had become fixed surnames for most English families.

Today, throughout the English-speaking world, it only takes a second of thought to realize that common surnames such as those ending in “son” actually began as patronyms. For example, Johnson = “son of John,” and Williamson = “son of William.”

tapestry showing men in armor on horseback wielding weapons
The conquering Normans introduced surnames to Britain in 1066.

Less commonly known are English royal patronyms and Welsh and Irish patronymics. In England, several illegitimate sons of kings were named “Fitzroy,” meaning “son of the king.” That includes Henry Fitzroy, the only acknowledged illegitimate son of King Henry VIII, and James FitzJames, the First Duke of Berwick and son of the Stuart-era King James II.

Welsh Patronymic Surnames

In Wales, surnames were not fixed until the 1536 Act of Union, which unified England and Wales. Welsh nobles adopted the English practice of fixed surnames first, and the tradition filtered down through society.

Welsh patronyms derive from fathers’ given names and use the prefix “’ap” (or “ab”) prefix. “Ap” is a contraction of “mab,” which means “son” in Welsh.

Thus, Rhys ap Dafyd = “Rhys, son of David” in English.

Some modern Welsh surnames have contracted even further: Powell, Price, and Pritchard are contractions and Anglicizations.

Powell = a contraction of ap Hywel

Price = a contraction of ap Rhys

Pritchard = a contraction of ap Richard

Russian Patronymic Surnames

In Russian, the patronymic forms an official part of person’s name, taking the place of a middle name of an English-speaking person. The patronymic comes after the given name and before the surname.

Thus, the Russian writer known in English as Leo Tolstoy was actually named Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. That middle name was Tolstoy’s patronymic, meaning “son of Nikolai.”

a seated Leo Tolstoy, facing the camera, with one arm leaning on the seat
Leo Tolstoy was actually named Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy

Evich” is the patronymic suffix meaning “son of,” while “ovna” means “daughter of.” Even in everyday speech, Russians will often refer to friends and colleagues by their given name and patronymic.

Arabic Patronymic Surnames

In Arabic, the “nasab” is the patronym signified by the prefix “ibn” for “son of” and “bint” for “daughter of.” A girl’s patronym would also be derived from her father’s name.

There are no matronyms (names based on a mother’s given name) in Arabic. Some individuals may include grandfathers and great-grandfathers as nasabs, although more than three nasabs are rare.

Icelandic Patronymic Surnames

While England cemented patronymics into fixed surnames 600 years ago, there’s one country in Europe where surnames are still patronymics (or matronymics), and thus change from generation to generation – Iceland.

In Iceland, the tradition of going by a first name and patronymic continues. Let’s take for example an Icelandic couple named Jón Einarsson and Brindís Magnúsdóttir.

Their son Ólafur would have the last name “Jónsson,” which means “Jón’s son.” Their daughter Edda would have the last name “Jónsdóttir,” which means “Jón’s daughter.”

6 women standing in front of a building, in the countryside of Iceland
Iceland remains the only country in Europe where surnames are still patronymics (or matronymics).

In some cases, children may also chose matronyms, especially if their paternity is not clear. In that case, Ólafur would name himself Ólafur Bryndísarson (“the son of Bryndís“) and his sister would be Edda Bryndísardóttir (“the daughter of Bryndís“).

Living without fixed surnames in the 21st century poses certain problems for Icelanders but has created ingenious solutions. Phone books are alphabetized by first name instead of last.

For Icelanders interested in dating but lacking surnames to help each other tell if they’re related, programmers have invented an Android app that lets dating partners know if they’re related. It’s based on the Íslendingabók, an online genealogical database containing records for more than 720,000 Icelanders going back 1,200 years.

What Can Your Surname Tell You?

Whether your name incorporates the name of a long-ago forefather or not, Ancestry® can help you establish your roots and research your family history. Try plugging your surname into the Ancestry Last Names Meanings and Origins widget. Type in your surname to learn all about its meaning and origin.

Log in to Ancestry or try Ancestry 14 days free.


Original publish date July 15, 2016.