History of Names

chagnonfamilytreeThe History of Names is so ancient that no one knows the beginning of the story. Since written history began, and as far back as oral history reaches, people have had names. It is therefore impossible to do more than guess at how the earliest given names were chosen. Most names appear to have had some sort of original meaning, usually descriptive, rather than being simply a pleasing collection of sounds. These descriptive names developed both from nouns and adjectives. Examples of name descended from nouns are like the Irish Gaelic names Conan “hound, wolf” and Aed “fire. Irish Gaelic names derived from adjectives also, such names as Fial “modest, honorable generous” and Finn “fair, bright, white.” A more elaborate descriptive naming practice is exemplified in the Bible, when Rachel names her last son Benoni or “son of my sorrow” and his father Jacob renames him Benjamin “son of the right hand”. (Gen.35:18).

Early in prehistory some descriptive names began to be used again and again until they formed a name pool for that particular culture. Parents would choose names from the pool of existing names rather than invent new ones for their children. As time went on the language changed and in many cases the words that formed the original name and its origins passed out of use, leaving the fossilized form in the name. This is why we do not recognize the meanings of many names today.

With the rise of Christianity, certain trends in naming practices manifested. Christians were encouraged to name their children after saints and martyrs of the church. The oldest of these names were Jewish and Greco Roman names. The names of the apostles and other prominent early Christians mentioned in the New Testament were often Jewish, such as Mary, Martha, Matthew, James, Joseph and John. The early Christians, lived in the Roman empire, and it is among the other people of the empire that they first began to convert non-Jews. As a result of the persecution of the early centuries, many Greco Roman names entered the Christian name pool in commemoration of the martyrs and saints, such as Anthony, Catherine, Margaret, Mark, Martin, Nicholas and Paul. Several of these early Christian names can be found in many cultures today in various forms.

Surnames developed from bynames, which are additional identifiers used to distinguish two people with the same given name. These bynames tend to fall into particular patterns. These usually started out as specific to a person and became inherited from father to son between the twelfth and sixteenth century. Some of the specific types are: the patronymic (referring to the father or mother), a locative or toponymic (indicating where a person is from), an epithet (which describes a person in some way) or a name derived from occupation, office or status. Out of these types occupational names are often the most obvious in origin. Baker, Brewer, Weaver, Taylor and Smith are fairly obvious in meaning. Some of these occupational bynames also have feminine versions, which became hereditary surnames. For example, the feminine of Baker is Baxter, the feminine of Brewer is Brewster and the feminine of Weaver is Webster. There are two main reasons why there are so many variant spellings of some name.

Until the last hundred years or so when the spelling of a surname became standardized, the same person’s surname could be spelled differently from record to record. Before the 19th century, when many people were illiterate. Only an elite few were educated beyond what we, today, would consider a basic elementary education. Consequently, many of the clerics & notaries, who under the French system of administration were charged with recording “vital statistics” wrote the names as they know them to be in France, as a precious few of the immigrants/colonists signed them, or as they heard them (phonetically). Hence, we have many variations of our name, Chagnon some of which are Chagnon, Chaigneau, Chagnard, Chaillon, Chaillons, Chaillont, Chagongne, Chagnont, Chagnons, Chagnart, and Shonyo, but all are included in the basic origin of the surname.  This lead to different spellings for same names. Spelling continued to change and evolve until the beginning of the 20th century when it became fixed, in large part due to the standardization required by Social Security Administration in the United States.  So as you are looking for your surname history, you may consider researching possible spelling variations. Don’t assume your surname was always spelled the way it is today.

In Europe, the first surnames were first used about eight hundred years ago. People developed individual surnames which, over time, became names that were passed down from generation to generation.  Some surnames origins are uniquely created. Scandinavian countries, at first, used non-inheritable patronymic names. Each succeeding generation would have a different last name based on his or her father’s first name. Because of this tradition, Scandinavian countries became standardized surnames much later than other European names. It was only about 100 years ago that people in Scandinavia began to inherit their father’s last surname.  Spanish countries traditionally use two surnames. Generally, the first surname is from the father and the second is from the mother.  Polish countries have gender specific surname endings. If a wife takes a husband’s surname which ends in –ski, her new surname will end in –ska.

“Dit” Names

The “dit” names have an interesting origin. The English translation of “dit” is “said”. The Colonists of New France added “dit” names as distinguishers. A settler might have wanted to differentiate their family from their siblings by taking a “dit” name that described the locale to which they had relocated to (ex: since the Colonists followed the customs of the French feudal system, land was divided among the first born. A few of the dit names that were used for the Chagnon family was Chagnon dit Larose, Chagnon dit Challion and Chagnon dit Lajeunesse.

Preponderance of Names

The preponderance of the names Joseph & Marie, or combinations with such, in the records. (ex. Joseph Charles, Joseph Francois, Marie Jeanne, Marie Margarite, etc.). It was/is the practice among the Catholics of the French & Hispanic cultures (note the number of Jose & Maria amid the Spanish-speakers) to honor Joseph, or Mary, by giving the baptized child the honorary name in addition to the given (first) name.

The French Canadians have slowly & slightly changed the practice by using the honorary names as middle names. All the Franco Canadian & Franco American men who entered the military service, with the name of Joseph preceding their “first name”, were registered as “Joseph”. The Government reasoned that since it was the first name listed on their baptismal certificate, it was therefore their “legal” first name.

There are a number of websites that can tell you the meaning of your surname, such as www.surnames.behindthename.com  or Meaning of NamesMeaning of Names – Browse through over 40,000 names, name meanings, and origins.