what if: you could trace your surname back to the first person who bore it?

Geneaology is always fascinating, in a narcisstic way.

Sites like ancestry.com tap into that urge to find out who you really are.

And the thing that’s really valuable for geneaologists – the thing that ties families together in historical records – is data about surnames, usually passed patrilineally from father to son, and so on.

A new study from the UK hopes now shed some light on the origins of all 150,000 surnames in use in Britain today.

Apparently most surnames, at least those of European origin, go back about 1000 years. (Before that, there was no need. You lived in a village small enough to get by with first names only.)

It occurred to me, reading this, that it’d be awesome to find out who the first person known by your surname was.

Who were they, and why was it that some particular characteristic, like height (Little), job (Goldsmith) or nationality (French) got picked out as their personal denominator?

I’d love to find the first ever Frenkel.

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2 thoughts on “what if: you could trace your surname back to the first person who bore it?

  1. Surnames don’t always go back all that long. For instance, my grandfather changed his name from Silverman to Sinclair in order to sound more British. He figured it would give him an advantage in the London tailoring business. (He was right!) Similarly, I wouldn’t mind betting that his own grandfather changed the family surname to Silverman from whatever it was before because he wanted to sound more Austrian.

    If you want something truly unique to you that links you to the past, you can do DNA testing. Check out http://www.23andme.com , owned by the wife of Google creator Sergei Brin. It can find out which continents your ancestors lived on, which celebrity historical figures you share an ancestor with, not to mention check your health. It was awarded Time Magazine’s “Invention of the Year” award for 2008.

  2. Hey, that’s a really good point, yep.

    Surnames are a social thing; genes are a biological thing.

    So the family tree you get with a surname is a social geneaology, marking lines of identification, versus with genes, which just mark inheritance.

    And I suppose the family tree that you get with a surname is also (usually) totally patrilineal.

    23andme, by contrast, provides four different systems of lineage:

    “One, Maternal Ancestry, traces your maternal lineage back through time from you to your mother, her mother, and all the way to the mother of all humans. Paternal Ancestry does the same for your paternal* lineage, tracing from you back to the father of all fathers. A third, Ancestry Painting, tells you where in the world each stretch along each of your 22 autosomal pairs is likely to have come from. The last, Global Similarity, assesses your relatedness to 10 regions that include more than 50 populations worldwide, as measured by the similarity of your DNA to people from those groups.”

    ‘Ancestry painting’ – sounds so poetic!!

    I’d love to hear from anyone who’s used this service…

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