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Surnames: Resources in Local History and Genealogy

This guide provides research strategies and resources at the Library of Congress to help genealogists understand the origins, evolutions, and relevance of family names.


Billy Vanderveer, composer. Will J. Hart, lyricist. Any old name is a wonderful name. 1916. Library of Congress Music Division.

The term onomastics, meaning the study of the history and origin of personal names, dates back to 1904. Onomastics can be a very useful tool in genealogical research as it is one of many ways to build family trees, provide ways around brick walls, and can provide insight into the identities of one's ancestors. Furthermore, some genealogists prefer to create one-name studies to locate and organize information about everyone who has had a specific name as far back in time as possible, instead of building pedigrees or descendant charts of a specific couple. This guide is meant to direct the researcher to books about personal names. It is not an exhaustive list of everything in the Library of Congress catalogs, but furnishes call numbers and titles for further research.

Origins of Names

Surnames may have originated from personal characteristics, locations, events, or from family associations. The use of surnames was not common in Europe before the Middle Ages. As cities became larger and more populous, additional names were added to be stylish, or to help people specify which Tom was being talked about. Surnames sometimes changed within a person's lifespan or were sometimes imposed by other people or by law. Etymologists and genealogists continue to research and publish the origins and meanings of names.

Surnames have been derived from the following attributes or characteristics:

  • Occupational – One way to distinguish between individuals was to specify their occupation. This gave rise to names like Miller, Smith, Tailor, etc., with all their variations.
  • Nicknames – Surnames that reflect careers, physical traits or places may have been imposed by friends or foes. Names like Little, Bigg, Redd, etc. may have originally been adopted to distinguish persons of the same personal name who lived in the same place.
  • Place Names or Toponymics – People may have been named for the places they lived like Atwood, Woods, Lake, Berg, Beach, Meadows, etc.
  • Naming Patterns and Patronymics – In some places, tradition dictates the naming of infants after specific relatives in a specific order. These traditions help genealogists determine who the relatives may have been. Many countries have surnames that essentially mean "son of" or "daughter of" and in some places these names changed every generation.

About Local History & Genealogy Reference Services

The Library of Congress has one of the world's premier collections of U.S. and foreign genealogical and local historical publications, numbering more than 50,000 compiled family histories and over 100,000 U.S. local histories. The Library's genealogy collection began as early as 1815 with the purchase of Thomas Jefferson's library.