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Onomastics or onomatology - from the Greek όνομα (name) - designates an interesting area of linguistics devoted to the study of proper names of all kinds and of their origins, subdivided into:
  • Anthroponomy or Anthroponomastics, for personal names
  • Toponymy or Toponomastics, for place names


The Gradual Development of Family Names

Individual identification through names has various possible stages, depending both on the prevailing culture and the size of a specific population:
  • Stage 1: Given name (forename/first name/Christian name, etc.)
  • Stage 2: Given name + patronimic and/or matronimic
  • Stage 3: Given name (+ patronimic and/or matronimic) + toponym and/or crafts name
  • Stage 4: Given name (+ patronimic and/or matronimic) + family/clan/tribe name
  • Stage 5: Given name (+ patronimic and/or matronimic) + family/clan/tribe name + nickname

Stage 1 - Given Name

At Stage 1 early mankind, if using any personal designation at all, presumably used a single appellation, sufficient to identify anybody in a very limited population.

We do not have samples of very early given names since written language was still to come in the future, so it is hard to conjecture what prompted them.

At the beginning it was probably not a parental decision but one delegated to the community's holy man/shaman, whose ruling was possibly influenced by noticeable attitudes of the infant, as is the case for Lakota names like Thathánka Íyotake (Sitting Bull), Thašúnke Witkó (His Horse is Crazy), Mahpíya Lúta (Red Cloud), etc.

Sioux chiefs Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud

In the case of North American indians, this also implies that a child would have to manage with a 'temporary' name for some years, before being given a final name, unlike other less primitive cultures where the name is given shortly after birth.

The Egyptian names that came to us, as well as most Assyrian and Hebrew ones, almost always include some reference to a deity, possibly to ensure the corresponding divinity's protection to the bearer.

Thutmose I (Thoth-Born)
Amenhotep IV (Amun is pleased), later Akhenaten (Effective for Aten)
Ramesses II (Usermaatre Setepenre, "The justice of Rê is powerful – chosen of Rê)
, Nebuchadnezzar II, Nabû-kudurri-usur ("O god Nabu, defend my firstborn son)

Later the Greeks adopted a more prosaic attitude with names like Alexander/Alexis ("defender"), Ambrose ("immortal"), Anastasios ("resurrection"), etc. etc. For a longer list, see Ancient Greek Names.

Alexander the Great - St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan - Emperor Anastasios II of Byzantium

The subsequent Christian cultures reverted to the previous 'theological' approach, delving from an ever-increasing list of saints at their disposal.

In any case, most cultures attach a strong symbolic significance to the given name: a lifelong good-luck charm.

Stage 2 - Patronimics/Matronimics

A patronimic is an appellation designating a person's parent - usually male, but also female e.g. in matrilinear cultures like that of the Berber Tuaregs - and means: 'son/daughter of' someone.

Semitic languages like Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic long remained at this stage, with prepositions like ibn-bin/ben/bar introducing the patronimic:

  • Yehoshua/Yeshua ben Yosef (Hebrew) - Yeshua bar Yosef (Aramaic) (a.k.a. Jesus Christ)
  • Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (a.k.a. Saladin)
Yeshua in Aramaic on old ceramic tile - Saladin

Goidelic languages, the ancestors of later Irish, Gaelic and Welsh, initially used Mór or Ap/Ab (son):

  • Ireland: Dónall Mór Ó Dónaill (Donald son of Donald)
  • NW Scotland: Fergus Mór mac Eirc (Fergus son of Eirc)
  • Wales: Gwyn ap Owen (Gwyn son of Owen)

Other languages use suffixes, as Scandinavian -sen/-son/-dottir, Dutch -zoon, Polish -ski, Hungarian -fi/-ffy, Russian -ov/-ovich/-ovski, ev/evich, evski, Ukrainian -enko, Romanian -escu, Spanish -ez, French -es/-ot, Portuguese -es, Persian -pur/-pour, Turkish -oglu/-zade.

Their use has lasted for so many centuries that most cultures may have forgotten their initial purpose and meaning.

Russian Family-Name Endings

Russian patronimics were once geographically related. Before the Soviet regime, and its resulting redistribution of a previously residentially stable Russian population, family-name endings were a good clue of what territorial part/region a person's family originally hailed from:

  • Russia proper: -EV/-EVA, -OV/-OVA
  • Ukraine: -NKO/-NKAYA:
  • Poland (annexed to Russia from 1795 to 1918): -SKY/-SKAYA
  • Belarus: -IN/-INA
  • Georgia: -SHVILI/-DZE
  • Armenia: -AN
Nikita Khrushchev - Taras Shevchenko - Józef Pilsudski - Mikhail Bakunin - Joseph Jughashvili (Stalin) - Anastas Mikojan

The -EV/-OV ending - usually transliterated as -EFF/-OFF - is the standard suffix of the Russian genitive plural for animated subjects.

Stage 3 - Toponyms and Crafts Names

The addition of a 'place name' to a person's first name was very frequent in Medieval times for both lay and religious people, e.g.:

  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Bernard of Clairvaux (founder of the Cistercian Order)
  • Benedict of Norcia/Nursia (founder of the Benedictine Order)
  • Francis of Assisi (founder of the Franciscan Order)
Leonardo's self-portrait - Logos of the Cistercian, Benedictine, Franciscan orders

A 'trade name' was also an easily distinguishing feature in small communities, giving for example Smith, Cooper, Fuller, Carpenter, etc. and the suffix -wright in English.

Stage 4 - Family/Clan/Tribe Names (Surnames)

Old Irish and Scots Mór was eventually dropped, leaving O' (e.g. O'Hara from O'Headra) and Mac (e.g. MacPherson) in contemporary Irish and Scottish names, still meaning 'of' and now designating a family/clan/tribe rather than a single parent.

O'Hara's and MacPherson's coats of arms - Edgar the Ætheling

The Anglo-Saxons used the suffixes -NGS/INGAS (e.g. Athelings, Gumeningas, Besingas) signifying 'people of', rather than a prefix.

A particular case was that of Jewish names that were converted to more 'Latinised' versions in various Christian countries, or ordered to be changed altogether in Germany and Austria:

German and Austrian Jews were subject to many restrictions in Germany until the early 1800s. In January 1782 the Austrian Emperor Joseph II. enacted a new law, called the Edict of Tolerance. It’s main goal was integrate his Jewish subjects fully into the economic life of the nation, and he therefore granted them access to public education, including higher education, and to job training as apprentices and journeymen. At the same time he declared the “Jewish language and writing” as abolished: all trade books, official documents and official certificates were to be written in German from then on.

On July 1787 a new ruling was published: each Jew in German lands was required to either adopt (or if they already had one, to maintain) a firm, German surname. Names derived from the Hebrew were no longer permitted, and had to be legally changed. Families with already established surnames were permitted to keep them, provided they were not Hebrew names. Given names were to be “Germanized” as well, and names that were “unknown in the German language” were no longer permitted. The selection was quite limited: the Hebrew translator in Bohemia, for example, submitted a list of about 2000 names, but only 156 of those were considered acceptable by the authorities. All other names were forbidden, and their use was punishable by fines.

(From: http://oldgermantranslations.com/translations/page4/page4.html)

Since moneylending was one of the few, sinful 'trades' permitted to Jews, many had to become Goldstein, Goldfarb, Goldbaum, Silberstein, etc. etc.

A Historical Example - The Development of Italian Names

What happened in Italy over some 1,500 years as an example of this evolution, not necessarily linear. Romans had reached Stage 5 with their names, like:

(Praenomen + Nomen + Cognomen)

meaning that Gaius belonged to the Roman gens Iulia (claiming descent from Ascanius/Iulo, son of Aeneas and grandson of goddess Venus) and bore their 'standard' prenomen, thus necessitating a 'nickname' (originally meaning 'hairy') to identify him specifically.

Curiously, the French have preserved the original Roman structure and use the designations of Prénom/Nom, confusing us Italians who instead use Nome/Cognome for the same terms .

The fall of the Roman Empire in the Vth century produced, among other consequences, a marked decline in Italy's population, and the resulting smaller communities reverted to Stages 1-3, adding FROM + a toponym when moving 'abroad', e.g. Jacopone da Todi, Antonello da Messina, etc.).

Franciscan mystic Jacopone da Todi - Antonello da Messina's self-portrait

A slow, gradual increase in population was reversed in the Middle Ages by famine, various pestilences - notably the Bubonic Plague (Black Death) of the mid XIV century - and recurring wars, where the consequences of carnage and pillage by run-amok soldiery were not significantly compensated by their equally customary rapes .

Only as late as the XIIth century did Italian noble/wealthy families start adding references to their family founders: Lorenzo de' Medici means literally 'Lorenzo of the Doctors' - the article De' (Dei, Degli) designates a plural genitive analogous to the Russian endings in -EV, -OV (-EFF, -OFF), essentially meaning 'of/belonging to'.

As things improved demographically, the need for family names returned, and these were often 'invented' on the basis of personal features (the most-frequently occurring family name here is Rossi ('reds') or arts/crafts (Fabbri, meaning 'blacksmiths').

But what about foundlings? How could abandoned children be given a family name, having no family whatsoever by definition?

Italian orphanages and convents used to have a ruota degli esposti (a 'wheel for the exposed'), a rotating contrivance where the bundle containing an unwanted child could be dropped off anonymously, with a bell announcing the event when the wheel was turned - thus finalising the abandonment of the poor creature:

A ruota degli esposti seen from inside the receiving institution.
Notice the sink in the foreground, for a quick sanitary rinse.

On reaching a certain age, orphans would be kicked out to fend for themselves, and the 'family' name they were provided with reflected something of the institution that had housed and grown them until then. Therefore, depending on the particular area:

  • Naples: Esposito, Espositi, Degli Esposti, etc. ('exposed')
  • Florence: Innocenti, Degl'Innocenti ('innocents', from the "Spedale degli Innocenti", the Hospital for the Innocents)
  • Milan: Colombo ('dove' - from 1780 to 1866 Milan's main orphanage was the "Pia Casa degli Esposti e delle Partorienti in Santa Caterina alla Ruota", its emblem a Greek cross surmounted by the white dove of the Holy Spirit spilling drops of blood from its chest)

Incidentally, Colombo is Milan's most-frequently occurring family name .


Place names in general can be subdivided into:

  • Toponyms for geographical areas, cities, etc.
  • Hydronyms for bodies of water
  • Oronyms for elevations like mountains and hills
  • Astronyms for celestial bodies

Place names have a more sedate life, once given they seldom change and do not evolve by stages, only through replacement - for instance when a territory changes hands. As a matter of fact, the dynamics of a toponym may often shed light on its historical/political vicissitudes.

Like anthroponyms, toponyms often reflect some local identifying feature. See for example an exhuastive list of Germanic toponyms.

English toponyms suffer the same general spelling irregularities indicated in another page. A few examples:


Enthusiasm may gain the upper hand in some cases, such as the famous 58-letter name of a Welsh village:


meaning: " "St Mary's church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the fierce whirlpool of St Tysilio of the red cave",
or the lesser known but longer 85-letter Maori name of a New Zealand hill:


meaning roughly: "The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the slider, climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one".

The names of the 4 main cardinal directions on a compass rose bear Germanic rather than Greek or Latin names, apparently due to a decision of the Frankish king Charlemagne, who called the corresponding 4 winds Nord (etymology uncertain), Ost (shining place, sunrise), Sund (sunny lands) e Vuest (dwelling place, meaning evening), hence our modern North, East, South, West. The unimaginative Anglo-Saxons relied on them to name their English kingdoms of Northumbria, Essex, Sussex, Wessex.

The names of important cities are often translated into exonyms, usually to better accommodate the phonetics of the receiving language, but also resulting in curious adaptations: the Italian port city of Livorno becomes Leghorn in English owing to a local breed of white poultry with prominent spurs, the gallina livornese:

Curious things may happen when a toponym is inaptly translated from its native language to another, such as with as-Sahra' al-Kubra ('the Desert Great') which became a redundant Desert of Sahara .

Another example is the Russian name for a railway station (Voksal), allegedly adapted from London's Vauxhall station by a Russian delegation visiting the area in 1840 to inspect the construction of the London and South Western Railway, and mistaking that name for the generic title of the building.

Denominations of Urban Thoroughfares

London is the city where I found the highest variety, with terms like: Street, Road, Way, Avenue, Close, Arcade, Garden(s), Mews, Walk, Grove, Row, Lane, Terrace, Square, Crescent, Circus, etc.

On the other hand, the unique situation of Venice, whose main thoroughfares are waterways, produces Rio (river) and Canal.

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