What's in a name? Exploring surname meanings. Part 1.
This article is intended to provide some general knowledge about genealogy, tracing family history, and introduce the reader to the surname meanings and how they can be determined through the research process.
Do you know what your surname means and how it was acquired? To be sure, there is an intriguing history associated with each name. The challenge for genealogists and family historians is getting to the root of the name so that a true meaning can be determined. Simply put, the surname you bear nowadays may be considerably different than the original spelling your ancestors used centuries ago. Thus, it is the spelling inconsistency by which names were altered over the span of many years that presents itself as the obstacle to overcome in determining the true meaning of the name.
It's also important to understand that, until fairly recently in our history, surnames were optional, or didn't exist at all. Although the actual start point varies by region, prior to the start of the 17th century, researching individuals (unless royalty or families of some importance) becomes very difficult. It is at about this time when people, outside of towns and cities, only began to use surnames with some regularity. Before that, most people only had first names.
Surnames were established for a number of reasons. First, and foremost, they were needed to distinguish the multiple Tom’s, Dick’s and Harry’s from one another. Surnames were used to identify people with respect to their parents and grandparents. For Germans, such surnames may be prefixed with VON (of, or ‘of the’). Surnames were created to identify people by their occupations, such as BECKER (baker); FISCHER (fisher); KRAMER (merchant); and SCHNEIDER (dressmaker). Surnames also associated people with a locality or geographic region, with surname endings such as BURG (castle); BRUCK (bridge); FURT (ford); or BERG (mountain). You will find that the aforementioned surname circumstances applied in most countries and across most ethnical backgrounds.
My surname, now written as YAKEL, was originally spelled JÄCKEL and/or JECKEL by my Rheinish German ancestors over 3 ½ centuries ago. The name JECKL (as well as JÄCKEL, JOCKEL and other variants) means “coming from Jakob” (Jacob), with the suffix –“EL” added as a diminutive nickname form.
My oldest ancestor, Joannes JECKEL, was born about 1650. His name literally means, “Joannes (John), coming from Jakob”. It is not unreasonable to presume that one of his ancestors, perhaps his father, or grandfather, was simply known by family and friends as Jakob. In time, when Joannes was born, he may have been referred to as Joannes JECKEL – literally, "Joannes, son of Jakob", to distinguish him from his father or other relative. Joannes, in turn, named his children, adopting the “JECKEL” moniker as his surname. Such was one common method for creating surnames. The rest, as they say, is history!
Even if you only have limited knowledge of your family’s origins, it is quite possible to determine the meaning of your surname. An Internet search will quickly produce many websites and references to aid you in this quest.
Best of luck as you trace your history!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Yakel is a freelance writer and author of three books. His articles have appeared in publications such as Communications Technology, The Pipeline, and Army Reserve Magazine, and have been highlighted on USAWOA Online, USAR Online, and other Internet websites. For great humor, or genealogy and family history resources, visit his bookstore at http://www.lulu.com/yakel
Joe offers free chapter previews of his books, and welcomes reviews and comments. His books are available in paperback, or downloadable format. For previews and purchasing information, visit Lulu Publishing at: http://www.lulu.com/yakel
Joseph Yakel is available for interviews, and accepts e-mail correspondence at firstname.lastname@example.org