The Origin of Common American Surnames
The origins of common names in America from the 3 biggest immigration waves, and how names were anglicized to adapt to American tongue
In the United States, we often take for granted the huge impact the waves of immigration and diversity have influenced our culture and world around us. Even when you walk down the street, or through the cemetery, you see all the different types of names and families that come from all different backgrounds.
In my opinion, it is so interesting to look at American history through the lens of people’s surnames. Even just through different letter combinations, you can tell the whole family history of a person’s ancestry and origin.
Most surnames can be traced back into:
- Patronymic — based after one’s father’s name
- Locative — based on location, or geographical origin
- Occupational — based on one’s job, or status
- Characteristics— based on one’s physical appearance or attributes
The Colonial Era
Before the American Revolution in the 18th century, the British colonies were made up of a largely African, Irish, German, and English population.
As many Africans were enslaved, very few could keep their original names, and had their names changed by their masters. Many had two names: one that their masters used to call them, and one for calling each other.
Masters may have named them after the location they were born, a distinct feature they may have had, and some names were even meant to be comical, or after characters of literature.
African-American names also differed based on location and the most frequently spoken language in that region. In Louisiana, many African-Americans had French names, and in Florida, many African-Americans has Spanish names.
Some freedmen would use anglicized versions of their African names upon emancipation as well. After emancipation in 1865, some freedmen took the last names of their masters out of convenience, and some would use names of heroes, or respectable figures, etc.
Scots-Irish refers to people of Scottish and Ulster, Ireland origin. Scots-Irish names are often patronymic, the Gaelic word “Mac” or “Mc” indicates “son of” and is therefore often at the beginning of Irish and Scottish names. The prefix “O’” is also often at the beginning of Irish names to indicate “grandson of”.
In the 1600s, it was difficult for Irish to find work in England with a Irish sounding name, so the O’ and Mc were often dropped. Some families decided to add them back in the 1800s, but some remained untouched — Murphy used to be Ó Murchadha.
Before immigrating to America, many Scottish and Irish had to have their names changed in England to “anglicize” them and make them easier to understand for English speakers, especially under English rule. Common ways these names were anglicized include: phonetically, translation, or substitution. This meant either English officials would create an English spelling based on pronunciation, the names themselves would be directly translated to English, they would choose Latin/English names with similar sounds.
German surnames derive from all 4 origins: patronymic, occupation, characteristics, or geographical origin.
Similarly to Irish and Scottish names, many German names were anglicized as well. However, German anglicization happened more commonly over time in America due to awkward spelling and pronunciations. Many German-Americans also changed their name due to anti-German sentiments during WW2, or to assimilate to the culture in general and hide ancestry.
As many Germans moved to Pennsylvania in particular, a new form of German dialect was developed called Pennsylvanian German. There was a lot of influence from Pennsylvanian German as well.
Many German names were also relatively long compared to American names, and were often clipped. German words in general tend to compound words to form words with multiple meanings, this happened with names as well. Ex. Schreckenberger to Berger.
Some common spelling changes include:
- <w> to <v> as the W in German is pronounced near to the English V
- <b> to <v> due to Pennsylvanian German
- <ß> to <ss> as the German ß (eszett) is pronounced as a sharp S sound. Ex. Straßberg to Strassberg.
- <ä> to <ae>, <ö> to <oe>, <ü> to <ue>, and as the <ae> vowel combination is uncommon in English, it eventually grew more common to spell it as <ea>. Ex. Jäger to Yeager
- Many umlauts (¨ symbol) were dropped altogether, as they do not exist in English. Ex. Göbel to Gobel
English names tended to also derive from all 4 origins: patronymic, occupation, characteristics, or geographical origin. Patronymic names were represented by “-s” or “-son” that were added at the end of the father’s name — William + s = Williams. White was a name given to those with white hair. Sadly, Green was not a name given to those with green hair or, but for those who lived near a green field. Baker, or Smith, are common names that indicate occupation as well.
As English was the most spoken language in the British Colonies, many English-Americans didn’t feel the need to assimilate or change their name to adapt to the American culture.
Waves of Immigration
The first wave of immigration is usually considered the mass immigration of people from Ireland, and Germany in the mid 19th century.
The second wave of immigration is usually considered the mass immigration of Italians, and Russians in the early 20th century.
Italian surnames usually derive from all 4 origins: patronymic, occupation, characteristics, or geographical origin.
- –isi, as in Troisi, indicate a Neapolitan or Sicilian background
- –aloro, as in Favaloro, are Sicilian
- –igo, such as Barbarigo, are Venetian
- –utti, as in Zanutti, are from Friuli Venezia Giulia
- –iu, such as Mongiu, are from Sardinia
Italian names also were altered or Americanized for assimilation, or convenience. Two common ways were translation and substitution. The Italian names were either translated to the American name equivalent, or spellings were substituted to make pronunciation easier for Americans. Most commonly, the ending of the name will either be cut off, or substituted with an -e, -ie, or -y.
Russian surnames are usually derived from patronymic origin, one’s occupation, or animals.
The ending “-sky” — “skaya" for females — is a form of answering the question: “Whose?” or “Where from?” and is used at the end of Russian names frequently. “-ov”, “-ova”, “-ev”, “-eva”, and “-in” are also often used at the end of Russian names to indicate “of” something, or someone.
Russian-Americans also changed their names by either translating to the English equivalent, or by substituting certain spellings to make pronunciation more convenient for Americans and to assimilate. Russian surnames also have to change from Cyrillic script to the American Latin alphabet.
Through looking at the history of our names and the names of the things and people around us, we can see how different cultures have impacted the world around us. Sadly, many cultures have had to assimilate and adapt their culture to help unify America into one culture, but in turn we can learn so much from how languages adapted and appreciate the beautiful blend of culture around us, and learn about our history through that.
These 6 populations don’t even begin to cover the huge range of diversity we have in America. Recently, Chinese and Mexican name influence is higher in our culture, and we can see how some choose to change their names and some choose to hold onto their roots. Immigrants come from all over the world, and we can truly see that through the origin of our names.
My name is Alyssa Gould, and I’m passionate about the intersection between Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, and Second Language Acquisition!
Feel free to contact me at email@example.com for questions or anything!