|This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.|
A frequent question asked of librarians by inexperienced researchers is "What does my family surname mean?" The answer can be found in surname dictionaries commonly found on library reference shelves. One such dictionary is Eldson C. Smith’s New Dictionary of American Family Names, previously published under the title Dictionary of American Family Names. Smith’s book is the standard source for finding the meaning of American surnames. It’s introduction contains an interesting discussion of the history and derivation of family names. Smith’s extensive treatise on the four ways names have come into being residence, occupation, father’s name, and descriptive nickname is an excellent introduction to the study of family names. More than 10,000 surnames are described in the New Dictionary of American Family Names. Each entry provides the country of origin followed by a brief description giving the meaning of the surname. Etymological origins of surnames are not given, nor are variant spellings.
In contrast, A Dictionary of Surnames, by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges, provides the origins of nearly 100,000 European surnames. The authors give references to variant surname spellings and compare similar names in other countries. The following is a comparison of entries from these two surname dictionaries for the surname Bowman. From Smith’s New Dictionary of American Family Surnames (page 54):
- Bowman (Eng., Scot.) A fighting man armed with a bow; one who made bows; the servant in charge of the cattle.
Compare it with the entry for Bowman in Hanks’s A Dictionary of Surnames (page 69):
- Bowman English: 1. occupational name for an archer, from OE boga bow + mann man. This name seems to be generally distinguished from Bowyer, which denoted a maker or seller of the articles. It is possible that in some cases the surname referred originally to someone who untangled wool with a bow. This process seems to have originated in Italy, but became quite common in England in the 13th cent. The vibrating string of a bow was worked into a pile of tangled wool, where its rapid vibrations separated the fibres, while still leaving them sufficiently entwined to produce a fine, soft yarn when spun.
- 2. in America, sometimes an Anglicized form of Ger. and Du. Baumann (see Bauer).Vars. (of 1):Boman; Beauman (see also Beaumont). Cogn. (of 1): Flem., Du.:Boogman.
A more recent entry, The Encyclopedia of American Surnames treats only the five thousand most common U.S. surnames but provides much more depth than standard surname dictionaries. Of particular interest to the genealogist, this volume cites published family histories for many of the surnames described. It also identifies eminent people who share the surname.
Specialized surname dictionaries also exist for individual European countries, such as Spanish Surnames in the Southwestern United States: A Dictionary, by Richard D. Woods, and German-American Names, by George F. Jones. Search a library’s card or online catalog under the subject heading Names Personal [country] for additional examples.