Surnames, Last Names, and Patronyms-Part I

Let me begin by saying that I’m still thinking and I’ve returned briefly to the concept of having a style guide for my blog and for my writing. Sometimes I might even come up with usage that is not entirely standard or deviates slightly from what others use. It’s not the end of the world.

Words and terms can get us in trouble, particularly if we use them without thinking or if we use them in ways that are inconsistent. If “trouble” is too strong of a word, we can at the very least confuse the reader and, occasionally, ourselves as well. It’s not being overly academic to think about trying to be as precise in our usage of terminology as possible. It’s about trying to be clear and consistent and avoiding additional confusion.

Such it is with surnames, family names, last names, and patronyms.

It’s easy when the family structure and naming follows “standard” and expected patterns. The problem arises in those locations and time periods where last names are not passed from parent to child and where children within a family do not share the same last name.

  • James and Elizabeth (Chaney) Rampley were the parents of: Thomas Rampley, James Rampley, Riley Rampley, Martha Rampley, and Elizabeth Rampley.
  • Jurgen and Eje (Janssen) Ehmen were the parents of: Trinke Jurgens, Fookle Jurgens, Ehme Jurgens, Johann Jurgens, and Tonjes Jurgens.
  • Johan and Anna Lisa (Eriksdotter) Sund were the parents of: Anna Johansdotter, Carl Johanssen, etc.

Some loosely written, tentative definitions:

Last Name

literally–a person’s “final” name.

Family Name

A last name shared by all the members of “family”–father, mother, and children. In some locations where the mother is always known by the last name she had at birth, there might not technically be a “family name.”


A last name that is passed from parent to child–in most Western cultures from the father to the child.


A last name that is derived from the father’s first name. In some cultures, children of the same father all shared the same patronym. In others the patronymic last name for male children varied slightly from the patronymic last name for female children.

These terms are not exhaustive and they are not mutually exclusive.

Have you thought about the “last names” in your families? For some researchers these questions are not germane to their research problems.

For those of us researching the likes of Karl Swanson, son of Swan Larson and Lisa Carlsdotter; Antje Ehmen, daughter of Ehme Gerdes and Foolke Janssen, and Tjode Goldenstein with full siblings Chris Ehmen, George Golden, and John Goldenstein, they are questions we ponder.

And that’s to say nothing of Swedish farm names or military names.

And we’ve not mentioned “dit” names, either.

We’ll have a follow up post to this. Stay tuned.



5 thoughts on “Surnames, Last Names, and Patronyms-Part I

  1. Meredith M. says:

    Wow! So far I haven’t come across any Swedish ancestors and now I’m hoping I don’t find any! 🙂 What other geographic areas typically have this type of naming system?

  2. The German naming pattern can be a nightmare if the children were given a saint’s “first” name followed by their “real” name and then the same last name as all the other family members. The children would likely all have the same saint’s name followed by their real first name. The Saint’s name was used the day of baptism and then not again. After that, it was the real name and father’s last name.

    • What you describe was most always the German naming tradition. Yes, usually a “first name” of a Saint (male or female), then the “Rufname” (calling name). There were some exceptions. For example a son named after Saint John who was not given a “middle/calling” name was Johannes. If a son did have a calling name, the “first” name was Johann or Johan.
      Germans were never known by the “first” name until they immigrated to the Colonies, where the English scribes entered their names in records with the “first name”, rather than the name they were actually called.

  3. I’ve been seriously confused with French naming conventions for written text in the 1600-1700’s, especially with their baptisms and other church records… lots of “dits” and “ets” and of course, it’s written in French so, that could be half my difficulty but the names both, first and surnames, repeat themselves over and over and then they Americanize at some point and Jean becomes John. I have 6 or 7 Daniels and Jean/John and Marie/Mary in only a couple generations. Very confusing. My solution was having someone that reads and understands French transcribe the docs for me, yet, they weren’t familiar with old naming conventions, who knows if I’ve got the right baptism assigned to the right Jean/John.

  4. Ooops when I said the surnames repeat, of course, the male surname repeats but, I forgot to mention it’s the mother’s or the woman’s surname that also repeats as a middle name but not consistently.

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