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Surname ancestry research tips

By Catalogs Editorial Staff

Using surname ancestry research tips is the best key to discover your roots

Using surname ancestry research tips is the best key to discover your roots

You’ve caught the genealogy bug and want to know everything you can about your ancestors. Where do you begin? Start with your surname (last name) or the surnames of your ancestors.

Surname ancestry research tips include knowing, for example, what “Mac” or “Mc” at the beginning of a name or “son” at the end of a name indicate. This helps narrow down your family search and determine in which part of the world your ancestors originated. Your last name tells you volumes about your heritage.


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Names beginning with the prefix “O” (O’Neill) are considered Irish. “O” means “grandson of.” Names beginning with “Mac” (MacDonald) or “Mc” mean descendant of (Donald) and are either Irish or Scottish in origin.

The prefix “Fitz” means son of. This is Anglo Norman. When princes and kings fathered illegitimate sons the child was given the name Fitz to indicate his parentage yet also establish his illegitimacy. Henry FitzRoy was the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII and Elizabeth Blount.

In France, using “de” before the last name means “son of.” (e.g., de Gaulle.) De, des, due and le mean ‘of.’



If your surname is Johnson, this means “son of John.” If your last name is Georgsdotter, you are “the daughter of George.” Adding the suffixes “son” or “sson” or “dotter” is a Scandinavian practice.

Names ending in “sen” rather than “son,” such as Petersen or Jansen, indicate your ancestors were from Scandinavia or German coastal regions. If you have a German last name using a single vowel, such as Hinrich instead of Heinrich, or a “p” for a “f” (Koopmann meaning Kaufman) this shows your origins were in northern Germany.

French suffixes include “elle,” “elot,” “eau,” and “elin,” which mean “little son of.”

Other suffixes reveal where people lived including, “bach,” meaning brook (German); “berg” meaning mountain (German); “baum” meaning tree (German); “borg” meaning castle (Swedish): “olph” meaning wolf and fame (English); “gren” meaning branch (Swedish); “strom” meaning stream (Swedish); “wich” meaning dwelling (English) and “worth” meaning homestead (English) just to name a few of many.

Jewish names

In Hebrew, “Ben” means son. Some Jewish people incorporate “Ben” into their last name, such as Ben-Yitzhak, meaning son of Yitzhak. Other Judaic people have the suffix “son” on the end of their last name, such as Jacobson, meaning son of Jacob.

Jewish people often assumed their last names based on religion or occupation. Kohn/Kahn meant priest. Kantor meant lower priest. Levi was the name of a tribe of priests. Goldstein means gold stone while Schneider means tailor. The Jewish name “Klein” means small in German. The name “Sandler” means shoemaker. The name “Berlin” indicates the city the person came from.

If your last name has a “ke” or “ka” suffix (Kafka) this indicates you have Slavic roots and come from the eastern section of Germany, Poland or Russia. “Ke” means son. However, the surname is an occupation not your predecessor’s first name. Krupke means “son of the hulking one” because krup meaning hulking.

A surname holds a host of secrets and information into your history including what country your ancestors came from, their occupation, whether they were city or country dwellers and who might have been born out of wedlock.


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