Turns out, a lot.
Most of us are given three names when we are born. Our first name is the one most often used to address us, and our last name is normally handed down through our father’s side of the family. Our middle name can be another family member’s name or completely random. Some people don’t have a middle name.
So, how did we all go from having one name, to more than one? Well, it’s complicated and varies, depending on where you live in the world, but for those of us who came from Europe, it’s similar.
Surprisingly, last names, or surnames, are a relatively recent development in our history, dating back to around the 13th Century. And it wasn’t until King Henry VIII, the English king from 1509 to 1547, mandated that all newborns take the last name of their father that it was required.
After a bit of online research to learn more about my own surname, I found that Moore is English in origin, which I’d always assumed, but what I learned about how my family, and many families, got their last names was enlightening.
Cultures around the world vary in how a last name was affixed, but if you’re from Europe, it’s fairly easy to trace.
Wikipedia and many other websites cite seven types of surnames: Occupational, personal characteristics, geographical (and under this category, place names and estate names), ancestral and patronal.
In other words, we all likely received our last names from what we did for a living (Smith, Baker, Mason), our appearance (Short, Brown, White), location (Fields, Forest, Grove), a place (London, Laughton, Birmingham), an estate (Windsor, Castle, Howard), from an ancestor’s given name (Johnson, Benson, MacDonald) or patronal, meaning of patronage, which usually had ties to religion or a person (Kilpatrick – a follower of Patrick).
Think about it. John’s son (Johnson), Ben’s son and Mac (Mac is Scottish Gaelic for son). It makes sense.
Moore is a location name. It means ‘open land’ or ‘bog’ and was given to those of us who lived near a moor or heath.
After reading up on the subject, I realized that I’m over halfway through my life and I had never thought much about how we got our names. I was also a little disappointed that my family name indicated my origins were near a bog.
That is, until I read about a place in England called Dungworth.
©2014 John Moore