Most surnames fall into four categories:
- Descendants/Given names -- prefixes or suffixes are added to a given name to establish a relationship. e.g. Anderson, O'Connor, Fitzgerald, MacDonald.
- Occupational names -- indicates a person's career. e.g. Baker, Brewer, Miller, Smith.
- Geographic or location names -- derived from where a person lived. This could be a place name, e.g. London, or describe the landscape, e.g. Hill, Pond.
- Nicknames or descriptive names -- suggest a person's distinguishing characteristic, e.g. Short, Brown, Long, Fairchild.
Name dictionaries use historical documents to trace a name throughout history. Several of the dictionaries in the Genealogy & Local History Room can tell you a name's meaning and etymology and may help you place the name in historical and geographical context.
Some of the best dictionaries for American name research include:
Also look for dictionaries for your specific ethnic group. For example:
British: British Family Names: Their Origin and Meaning With Lists of Scandinavian, Frisian, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman Names
German: German-American Names
Hispanic: Hispanic Surnames and Family History
Italian: Our Italian Surnames
Look for more name dictionaries in the Genealogy & Local History Room.