Your surname says a lot about you. Surnames were traditionally passed on from father to child and if that child was a girl, then her surname would change to that of her husband and their children would carry his name.
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It is a part of our collective story for hundreds of years.
At one time, of course, surnames didn’t exist. They came about as a means of distinguishing one person from another in official documents and since then they have ended up having a deep and close attachment for many people.
There are lots of people who are proud of their surname and want to know more about it.
If you are one of those people, then you might have many questions as to what your surname means or to where it comes from. Different countries have different surname traditions and that is why it is important to understand how surnames have evolved across the world to be able to find out about yours.
So, if you have ever wondered “How rare is my last name and how to check” then this article will give you all the information you need in order to find out. It’s information worth having in order to pass on to your children and your future descendants.
What Is A Surname?
To begin with, let’s briefly take a moment to be a bit more explicit about what exactly a surname is. As mentioned in the introduction, surnames originate hundreds of years ago but you might be wondering if this is the case for all surnames?
Well, in England for example surnames are known to date from around the year 1066 onwards because the Normans wanted to be able to identify people not just by where they lived but also what they were called.
In France, surnames have been in existence since around the same time as in England though it is thought slightly earlier than the 11th century. The oldest civilization to adopt the use of surnames are thought to be the Chinese in around the year 2000 BC.
However, other groups such as the Romans also used surnames although the tradition of using family names and creating surnames would die off with the Roman Empire and it would not be until the 11th century that they would begin to be used in any great quantities again.
A surname is in effect a name that comes after your first name and usually links you to a particular family from which you originate. It is a means of collectively grouping individuals together in units which is why the Normans found it so useful in the wake of their conquest of England as it represented a means of easily taxing the population.
Therefore, although surnames originally were seen as a means of telling people apart they now ensure that, if we are lucky, we can trace our family trees back several hundred years and discover where our ancestors came from, what they did and how they lived.
Now that we’ve explained what a surname is, let’s move on to discussing the different types of surnames. It is important that you understand how surnames can be quite distinctively different as it will help you find out whether the surname you are looking for is a rare one or not.
Different Types Of Surnames
There are three main types of surnames – this is because surnames come from three broad categories.
- Occupational – This means a person’s surname derives from the occupation that one of their ancestors held which then became the family’s surname. Examples of occupational surnames are Taylor, Barber, Cooper, Wright, Smith and many more. They are often the most common surnames as well such as the above-mentioned Smith and Taylor because many people had these occupations in the past.
- Locational – This means a person’s surname comes from the place that the person who first had the surname came from. Often people were defined by where they came from and, in records, someone such as “Adam of Escrick” could easily be transformed into Adam Escrick over time. Examples of such locational surnames are ones like York, Boston or Cromwell, all surnames that derive from real places. These surnames can often be quite rare as sometimes the surname survives but the original village no longer exists.
- Descriptive – This usually means that the person whose surname yours originates from had a particularly distinctive physical feature which resulted in them being named after it. For example, in old records some might be referred to as “Alan with the crooked back” which over time would translate into his descendants having the surname Crook. Similarly, there were other ways someone could be described – such as Short, Tall, Dark or others. Descriptive surnames tend to be somewhat rarer than locational or occupational surnames simply because not everyone looked alike, and the particular descriptive feature had to be distinctive enough for it to warrant it being considered the person’s surname.
Most surnames throughout the world, not just in Europe and America follow this general pattern. Whilst there are some exceptions, it is broadly easy to define most people’s surnames by these three categories.
This of course helps in determining whether your surname or the surname of the person you are looking for is particularly rare or not. For example, whilst some people have surnames that are obviously common because they are so widespread like the occupation surname Smith, others are far rarer.
Now that we’ve established these three categories, let’s turn to showing you how to find out how rare your last name is.
How Rare Your Last Name Is – Reviewing the Name
The first thing to do before you start any other wider searches is to review your surname based on the above-listed categories. If your surname seems to be particularly obviously based on a job or a well-known location, it is unlikely that the surname is particularly rare.
However, if looking at your surname looks unusual and doesn’t seem to naturally fall into the categories that are listed above, then there is a good chance that your surname is rare once. Once you have assessed whether it is possible that it is rare or not, it is time to begin the work of proving whether it is rare one way or another.
How To Find Out If Your Surname Is Rare Or Not
Once you have decided whether you think your surname is rare or not, it’s time to get on with proving if it is rare or not.
Firstly, you should try and search for your surname on Google. This is easily enough accomplished and can be done by simply typing it with the suffix surname and seeing what comes up.
Whilst this may take you to a site like HouseofNames or another similar genealogical website which might give you the origin of your surname, you need something that is a little more specific – something that demonstrates that you have a rare surname or that you don’t have a rare surname.
To do this you should search for the surname you are looking at plus the word distribution. The reason you need to include the word distribution is simple – it will give you an idea as to how many places your surname is present in.
For example, your surname might be more common in one country than another – indeed your surname might be uncommon in the country of your birth but relatively common in another nation which looking at the surname distribution will demonstrate.
If you search for your surname plus distribution, then you should come across Ancestry’s dedicated family history pages for most surnames. This will allow you to see for yourself on the Ancestry site how your surname has spread across the United States and help you to understand how spread across the United States it is.
Once you have seen the distribution map you will be able to judge for yourself whether your surname is common or rare. If the amount of distribution is high – say for example on a particular census there were 50,000 or even 100,000 instances of your surname across your nation, then you know that your surname is not rare.
If on the other hand the distribution of your surname is low at around 2,000 or fewer than you know that you have a particularly rare surname and one that is well worth investigating.
Why It Is Important To Know About The Scarcity Of Your Surname
Your surname often feels as though it is individual to you. That it is a name that only exists in relation to you and or your immediate family.
This often isn’t the case. Even with a rare surname there will be other people, sometimes related to you and sometimes not, who share the same surname as you and who live a parallel life to yours.
They will likely think like you – that the surname is an individual one, crafted solely for them and their family and not think that there are others out there who also have it.
This is why it is important that you understand how rare your surname is. Because your surname is a part of you – it helps to define you as much from other people as it did when it was created for your ancestors long ago.
So finding out whether or not it is rare can help you trace your family line back hundreds of years, perhaps even further than you thought and allow you to truly connect with your ancestral roots.
We all come from somewhere and by understanding the origin of your surname you can understand not only where you come from but also why your ancestors decided to do what they did and how they lived their lives.
This is the power of family history; it can help you go back in time not just to learn about distant and remote Kings or Queens, but it can help you learn about yourself and learn about how your ancestors struggled and lived.
Learning about your surname can inspire you to do things that you never thought you did and do what your ancestors could never do. So if you have ever wondered how rare your surname is then go out today and find out.
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