European Patronymic Surnames (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Scottish Patronymics[edit | edit source]

Raonull Mac Dhomhnuill is Ronald son of Donald in English. Highlanders could quote many generations in the form Raonull Mac Dhomhnuill mhic Cormac mhic Colla mhic Alisdair meaning Ronald s/o Donald s/o Cormac s/o Colla s/o Alisdair, in a similar way to the Welsh. Themhic sounds more like vic when pronounced and is sometimes written that way. The feminine (daughter of) is nic or one of its variations (McDonald).

Surnames in the Highlands are of comparatively late date, and the patronymic system was still in use in the first quarter of the 18th century, and even later in the Shetlands. There is an example in 1841 of a girl named Bruce Matthewson daughter of Matthew Bruce, and one of a 1907 bride’s ancestry quoted by Diack as: Charles Hoseason s/o Hosea Anderson s/o Andrew Johnson s/o John Francisson s/o Francis Johnson s/o John Lawrenceson s/o Laurence Sjovaldson s/o Sjovald of Aywick.

There is an old chestnut of Macs being Scottish and Mcs being Irish. Actually Mac is the older form and Mc a later one, together with the handwritten abbreviations M or M’ seen in many old registers (McDonald). There was also a difference of opinion as to whether there should be a space after the prefix, and whether the main part should be capitalized, thus one can find a variety of formats. McRae, for example could be seen as:

MacRae Mac Rae Macrae Mac rae
McRae Mc Rae Mcrae Mc rae
M’Rae M’ Rae M’rae M’ rae

Well-transcribed documents are reported exactly the same way as they are originally written.

Walker found these variations on McHardy:

  • Prefixed Mac, Mack, Mak, Makc, Mc, McK, M’, and M’K
  • With H or A to start the middle part
  • With or without the R
  • Suffixed -dy, -dey, -die, -i, -e, -ee, or -tey

Irish Patronymics[edit | edit source]

Early surnames were Gaelic patronymics using the prefix Mac for sons, and Ny or Nyn for daughters, with the father’s given name, orÓ (anglicized as O’) to the grandfather or earlier ancestor’s name. Michael Merrigan (How Irish One-Name Studies Differ from Those in England. Journal of One-Name Studies Vol 17 #4, pages 10-13. 2000) quotes the 1650 family:

Husband: William McFilpatrick
Wife: Evelin Nyn Art
Son: Breame McWilliam
Son: Teige McWilliam
Daughter: Ellinor NyWilliam

He predicted that they would likely all become Williams in the next generation. Several Irish names introduced by the Normans began with the equivalent Fitz (from Frenchfils ‘son’) prefix, for example Fitzgerald, whose original bearer, Maurice Fitzgerald, was a Norman retainer and son of Gerald, steward of Pembroke Castle.

Welsh Patronymics[edit | edit source]

Under the patronymic system where in English one is called John, son of William, in Welsh this is John ap William (or ab in front of a name beginning with a vowel). The Welsh word for son is mab or map, equivalent to the Scottish mac. These mutate to fab and fap (pronounced as a ‘v’), and then in writing the ‘f’ is dropped giving Rhys ab Owain and Rhys ap Hywel. The vast majority of Welsh surnames are patronymically derived, and from a very limited number of popular first names thus so many people have the same names! This patronymic system causes another problem in that the surname changes every generation. In addition one finds that married women tend to retain their maiden surnames.

A Welshman would recite that he was, for example: Dafydd ap Huw ap Hywel ab Owen ap Dafydd ap Rhys ap Gryffudd ap Eynon that in genealogical terms gives you seven generations of his ancestry! This proclivity gave rise to the English phrase, ‘As long as a Welshman’s pedigree.’ This Dafydd might generally be known as David (or Dewi or Dai) ap Huw, after his father or, to confuse the English even more, as David ap Hywel, after his grandfather! David might have a son called Arwel ap David.

Daughters (merch) were known by their father’s names, and with mutation merch becomes ferch, giving Gwenllïan ferch Ieuan. [Gwenllian daughter of Evan] There are a few unusual surnames derived from daughters, for example:

Verch Richard -> Critchett
Verch Edward -> Kedward

Most Welsh patronymic contractions and anglicizations are formed from a P added before H and R, or a B prefixed to vowels.

Examples include:

ap Harry -> Parry
ap Humphrey -> Pumphrey
ap Huw -> ap Hugh -> Pugh
ap Hywel -> ap Howell -> Powell
ap Rhydderch -> Prydderch/Prothero
ap Rhys -> ap Rees -> Price
ap Richard -> Pritchard
ap Robert -> Probert
ap Robyn -> Probyn/Probin
ap Roger -> ap Rosser -> Prosser
ab Adam -> Badham
ab Evan -> Bevan
ab Eynon -> Beynon
ab Owain -> ab Owen -> Bowen
Many use the possessive -s suffix instead of the ap, or have dropped both, giving
ap Hugh -> Hughes or Hugh
ab Owain -> Owens or Owen
ap William -> Williams or William
ap Dafydd -> Davies or Davy
ap Gryffudd -> Griffiths or Griffith
ap Roberts -> Roberts or Robert
ap Siôn -> Jones or John
and there are a few which retain the -ap as -up like
ap Richard -> Uprichard
ap Siôn -> ap John -> Upjohn

And so we see the derivation of many common Welsh surnames. In practice the ‘ap’ is not always used, thus one cannot assume its presence at the time of the 1851 census, but there were certainly some rural Welsh still using this form colloquially. Bear in mind that the rulers and clergymen were usually English and not sympathetic to ‘unpronounceable’ Welsh versions of names, thus names were written in an anglicized form. Thus Dafydd could be David in the records, but known by the pet name Dewi or Dai; and the following are all the same person:

Ieuan ap Gwilym
Ieuan Gwilym
Evan ap William
Evan William
Evan Williams

Likewise siblings may use different ‘surnames’ too, for example the five sons ofHarry John were:

Griffith ap Harry
John Parry
Harry Griffith
Richard John
Thomas Jones

The Welsh family historian has to take background reading and local history seriously in order to distinguish his ancestors. Much greater emphasis has to be placed on oral and family evidence, and on sources which elsewhere might be considered minor, such as family & estate papers (especially rentals and leases), and tithe maps since families stayed for generations on the same estate, if not in same house.

Scandinavian Patronymics[edit | edit source]

There is a serious problem with repetitious personal names in Scandinavia, for example 15 boys names account for 90 percent of the surnames in Denmark! In Denmark Jens Nielsen may have had a son called Hans Jensen and a daughter Margrethe Nielsdatter. Hans Jensen’s children would be surnamed Hansen and Hansdatter. In Iceland the system, which is still partially in use, went a step further. All the girls received surnames derived from their mother’s name such asBirgitsdottir, or Katrinsdottir. In one nuclear family there could thus be four surnames, for example:

Father: Jon Gislason
Mother: Bodil Gudrunsdottir
Boys: surnamedJonsson
Girls: surnamed Bodilsdottir

About 150-100 years ago there was a change to constant surnames in Scandinavia, the range of years representing the cities’ and rural areas’ conformance with the new laws. Daughters can be found under either -sen or -datter during the changeover period, thus both forms are typically indexed together under -sen.

Neighbours distinguished between the many Jens Pedersens in one village by adding a descriptive second surname, typically:

  • Ÿ His farm for example Hans Christensen Vanderskrog, Christen Christensen Rimmen
  • Ÿ A nearby location such as Anders Svendsen Holm (‘island’), Peder Andersen Berg (‘mountain’)
  • Ÿ His trade like Christian Mortensen Skrædder (‘tailor’), Rasmus Hendricksen Skomager (‘shoemaker’)

Although many people have now adopted the more unusual location/farm/ trade names there are still a majority of patronymics and thus the distinguishing trade is still used in phone books and when addressing a letter. In the old registers the man was given as ‘Farmer Hans Nielsen’ or ‘Fisherman Thomas Rasmussen Lund.’ The first word is always the trade.

Patronymic Affixes[edit | edit source]

Patronymic affixes include (Hanks and Hodges 1988):

  • ŸPrefixes
  • Ÿ Mac- (nic, for daughters) in Scots Gaelic
  • ŸMac- or Ó (anglicized as O’) and ny or nyn for daughters, in Irish Gaelic
  • Ÿ ap and ab (ferch for daughters) in Welsh
  • Ÿ French Fils de and Fitz-
  • Ÿ Jewish Ben (son of) and bat (daughter of)
  • Ÿ Suffixes
  • Ÿ -s and -son in English
  • Ÿ -ing and -er in North German
  • Ÿ -esco, -escu and -vici in Roumanian
  • Ÿ -opoulos, ides or -iades in Greek
  • Ÿ -ov or -ev in Russian, and Bulgarian
  • Ÿ -sen or -son and -datter,-dotter' or -dottirin the Scandinavian languages
  • Ÿ -zoon in Dutch, thus Jan Klaaszoon is Jan son of Klaas
  • Ÿ -ma, -sma, -sema or -stra in Friesian, thus Jaap Geertsma is Jaap son of Geert
  • Ÿ -ez in Spanish, as in Pérez, Martínez, González
  • Ÿ -er in Portuguese
  • Ÿ -i from northern Italy, and -o from southern Italy
  • Ÿ -owicz in Polish
  • Ÿ -fi in Hungarian
  • Ÿ -vich in Slavonic languages
  • Ÿ -ic in Yugoslavia

A similar system exists in the Muslim world but includes tribal names and birthplaces as well, and a father will add the name of his first born son to his own name (Colwell). Thus a gentleman with the name Abu Abdullah Muhammed ibn Ismail ibn Ibrahim ib Mughirah al Ju’fi al Bukhari tells us that his firstborn son is Abdullah, his father is Ismail, his grandfather Ibrahim, his great grandfather Mughirah, and that he is of the tribe of Ju’fi and was born atBukhara.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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