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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 ($).


Jewish Surnames

Many Jewish surnames became anglicized by transliteration or translation when families arrived in England or North America, for example David to Davis, Levi to Levin, Lucas or Lewis. Those who had only been previously known by a patronymic such as Levi ben David or Miriam bat Solomon chose a name under which they would be known in their new country. Generally, Jews had lived comfortably with patronymics until the late 18th and early 19th centuries in various parts of Europe. It was then that their governments insisted upon them acquiring surnames. Some general types of names were chosen:

  • ŸThe town from which they came, or that in which the father was born, or where they settled in their new country
  • ŸTribal name, thus the priestly tribe Kohanin, became Cohen, Cohn or Katz. Others include David and Levi
  • ŸA male Old Testament name such as Reuben, Isaac or Joseph
  • ŸOrnamental names such as Morgenbesser (‘tomorrow [will be] better’), Rosenbaum (‘rose tree’), Goldstein (‘gold stone’), and Weinfeld (‘wine field’)

Many Jewish names are found only amongst the Ashkenazim (Yiddish speakers from eastern Europe), whilst others only appear in the Sephardim (from the Iberian peninsula), and a few are not restricted to either group. Good sources for meanings and origins of Jewish surnames are Hanks and Hodges’ A Dictionary of Surnames (1988), B. C. Kaganoff’sd A Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History, and Isobel Mordy’s My Ancestors Were Jewish, How Can I Find Out More About Them?.

Gypsy Surnames

Family historians having a family story concerning possible gypsy ancestry need to take a close look at the typical gypsy surnames as well as their forenames, occupation and pattern of mobility. Surnames are not conclusive evidence of Romany heritage, as many of them were also generally common ones, including Young, Taylor, Smith (a translation of the Romany for ‘horseshoe maker,’ Petulengro), Shaw/Shore, Lea/Lea/Leigh, Gray/Grey, Draper, Cooper and Boswell. There were hundreds more which were transliterations or translations from the Romany, or adopted by choice when they entered England. Floate deems it more instructive to find them associated with a particular county such as Doe in Hampshire, Giaskin in eastern England from Suffolk to Yorkshire, or Lock as an alias forBoswell in North Wales. Her extensive appendix list of typical gypsy surnames with their approximate geographical areas is most useful.

Working With Surnames

Does a knowledge of the meaning of your surname help your research? The answer to this is ‘usually not, but sometimes it can.’ With diligence most researchers can get back to the 17th century in North America and Western Europe by using parish registers and other sources. Many of these records go back further than that, but only some 6.5 percent church registers in England commence at the earliest date of 1538. A minority will also be able to use manorial records that pre-date the parish records. The family historian then faces the reality that surnames for most of the population came into force at the latest by 1450. There is therefore a considerable gap, of three or four generations, between the latest surname derivations and the earliest parish registers. It is therefore most unlikely that I shall find the original Gardner whose occupation gave its name to my agnatic (father’s) line, and the same can be said for most common occupational, patronymic, topographical and nicknames. The situation may not be so bleak for rare names of these types and for habitational names from small communities. For the latter it is possible to at least locate the geographical source of the name and sometimes the actual family or person involved. Three examples are the place name derivatives Gainsborough (from a place in Lincolnshire), Isherwood (a place in Lancashire), and Durtnal (from a deserted village called Durkynhole in Kent). The derivation of Chowings/Chowen etc. is as yet unknown, but all the early references are from north and west of Dartmoor in Devon. So, investigating surname dictionaries and One-Name studies to assess the meaning and geographical provenance of your surname may pinpoint likely areas of the country for further research.

Which is the surname?

The researcher is frequently presented with ambiguous records, particularly where people have middle names, or where their surnames are short-form patronymics like James or Thomas. This kind of case requires some thought:

St. Sepulchre, City of London chr. 31 Jan 1791
Sampson Moore s/o Thomas Simmons and Mary Jackson

This could mean any of these three situations:

  • ŸSampson Moore SIMMONS s/o Thomas and Mary Jackson SIMMONS
  • Sampson Moore JACKSON s/o Thomas Simmons and Mary JACKSON
  • Sampson Moore JACKSON illegitimate s/o Thomas SIMMONS and Mary JACKSON

Another example is:

St. Mary Northgate, Canterbury chr. 14 Feb 1768
John Norwood s/o Thomas Norwood and Mary Saffery

Is this an illegitimate birth to Mr. NORWOOD and Miss SAFFERY? It doesn’t actually say so, but not all of them do. One needs to investigate, and in this case it was found that the child’s parents were married previously in same church:

20 Apr 1767 of Thomas Norwood Saffery otp + Mary Hayward of St. Gregory’s by licence.

Very rarely are surnames capitalized in original registers. Baseborns are often stated as such, but not always and one should check the format used at this period in the same church. Thus in the same church we see:

28 Jan 1770 John Jull baseborn s/o Mary Knight

This means that the child’s name is John Jull KNIGHT, and his father is likely a Mr. JULL. It is far easier for us when the vicar actually stated whether the lady was his wife, as in:

St. Andrew, Holborn c.16 Sep 1804
Mary Augusta d/o William Leeson Wall and Ann Warrington his wife of New Ormond Street



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
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

Category: England