Family History Through the Alphabet – S is for Surnames and Surnames that Start with S

S is for Surnames:

William Shakespeare famously asked in his play Romeo & Juliet, “What is in a name?” The poetic and romantic nature and meaning of this question aside, those who undertake researching their family history know that there is a great deal in a name, particularly surnames. Thus, I will focus on surnames in general in this week’s “Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge” and close with some of my own surnames that start with the letter “s.”

A surname is a part of a personal name, which is usually shared in common with members of a family. Thus, the word surname is usually synonymous with “family name.” In most Western countries, the surname is typically placed at the end of a personal name, which is why it is commonly called a “last name.” In Hungary and many Asian countries, the surname is placed at the start of a personal name, before the given (or first) name. In my Hungarian ancestry, I encountered the practice of placing the surname first in personal names in my 2nd great grandparents’ family Bible.

In many Western countries, there are generally five categories for surname types: patronymic names, location (or habitation) names, occupation names, nicknames, and ornamental names. Understanding which of these your surname falls in can provide important information about your family and provide clues to tracing your ancestry.

  1. Patronymic surnames are those that derive from the first name of the father. These often involve either the addition of a suffix (e.g., s, sson, son, ez, dotter, etc.) or a prefix (e.g., O, Mc, Mac, Fitz, etc.), which translate as “son of” or “daughter of.”
  2. Location (or habitation) names are typically either generic, referencing a general geographic feature, or specific, referring to a specific location.
  3. Occupation surnames have as their meaning a reference to a particular occupation, as in the surname Schindler which refers to the occupation of shingle maker. Additionally, occupational surnames can also have as their meaning the particular occupation of a person’s employer or master, particularly if an “s” has been added, as in the surname “Vickers,” which refers to a servant of a vicar.
  4. Surnames deriving from nicknames, can either be “pet names” for given names, or derive from words referencing appearance, temperament, and personality.
  5. Ornamental surnames are surnames that were adopted for no real specific reason, have no specific reflection on the person who first bore it, were often made up by or appealed to the person selecting it, and in some cases have symbolic meaning. Ornamental surnames were mostly adopted in the 18th and 19th centuries when laws required the adoption of a fixed surname (as opposed to a traditional patronymic surname), and are common among Jews and Scandinavians.

Ancestry.com has a helpful searchable database, which may help you uncover the meaning and origins of your surname.

Additionally, there are many genealogical resources available that involve surnames as an important aspect of the research.

  • One type of these resources are “one-name studies.” As opposed to a particular family history or pedigree, a “one-name study” is a project researching a specific surname that can range from a study of that surname in a particular geographic location to all occurrences of the surname world-wide. These projects are important genealogical resources as they are often a collection of data for persons that bare the particular surname in question. The Guild of One-Name Studies is an organization that was established to help preserve and centralize these studies. Their website has a free surname search, which includes contact information for those researching a given surname.
  • Another important genealogical resource involving surnames is surname distribution maps. Usually, these maps graphically display the frequency of a particular surname in a given location. This is useful in tracking possible locations your ancestors may have been from, if they are unknown to you. There are some free searchable surname distribution maps available online for several countries. Ancestry.com’s surname search displays the frequency in the United States, England & Wales, and Scotland. Irishtimes.com has one for Ireland. Dynastree has several that appear to still be working, including for Germany, Poland, and Switzerland. Genevolu has another one for Germany. RadixIndex has one for Hungary based on an 1891 directory. A fun one is WorldNames, which shows the frequency of your name around the world. If you click on a specific country, it will show you how your surname is further breaks down in that country and so forth.
  • Related to one-name studies and surname distribution maps are surname DNA projects, which use genealogical DNA tests to trace lineages of particular surnames. These projects can reveal more about the roots and family groups that bare a particular surname, in addition to identifying the genetic place of origins for a particular surname and line.

S is for Surnames that Start with S:

S is also for surnames that start with the letter S, of which I have six: Sebok, Sheridan, Stearns, Stålberg, Seely, and Stephens.

Sebok (or Sebök) is the maiden name of my maternal grandmother, Alberta (Sebok) Hamilton (LIVING) and thus one of the “cardinal branches” discussed on this blog. The surname is Hungarian in origins, though it is also found today in regions of Romania with large numbers of Hungarians. My Sebok branch traces back to the village of Székelyzsombor (now Jimbor, Romania), a rural village located in the historic region of Transylvania. According to available research, moreover, the Sebok surname derives, possibly as a nickname, from the personal name “Sebestyén,” which is the Hungarian form of the name “Sebastian.” Because of the prevalence of the name Sebastian in Christian tradition, the name probably emerged in Hungary following the adoption of Christianity. However, the name Sebastian historically originated to identify someone from Sebastia, an ancient city in the Black Sea region of Pontus. It is interesting to note that many accounts claim that Hungarians originated from the Black Sea area.

Sheridan is the maiden name of my 4th great grandmother, Martha Rose (Sheridan) Kiernan (ca. 1797-?), who married Felix Kiernan (ca. 1796-1882). The surname is Irish in origins. My Sheridan branch traces back to one of the northern counties of Ireland, possibly Longford or Cavan.  According to available research, moreover, the Sheridan surname is an Anglicized form of the Gaelic surname Ó’Sirideáin, which means “descendant of Sirideáin.” Sirideáin (and Siridean) is a personal name of unclear origins. There are two accounts given, however, for its possible meaning. The first states that the personal name Sirideáin derives from the word “siride” meaning “elf,” making the surname a nickname for the original bearer’s personality, that of mischievous (which was the nature of elves in Irish myths). The second states that word derives from to important elements within the personal name, “sir,” meaning “search,” and “dean,” meaning “act,” “do,” or “perform,” giving the surname the meaning of “one who searches” or “a searcher,” which may be a reference to either an occupation or a personality trait.

Stearns is the maiden name of my 2nd great grandmother, Maudena Elizabeth “Lizzie” (Stearns) Kernan (1885-1936), who married George Edward Kernan (1884-1960). The surname is English in origins. My Stearns branch traces back to Yarmouth, England before their arrival in Massachusetts in 1630. According to available research, moreover, the Stearns surname is a patronymic surname that derives from personal name Stern, which is itself a nickname based on personality for a strict or austere person, coming from the Middle English word “stern(e),” meaning “strict” or “austere.” (The surname has a different meaning for those of German and Jewish ancestry.)

Stålberg is the maiden name of my 3rd great grandmother, Anna Elizabeth Stålberg (1869-1918), who was the grandmother of my great grandmother, Alice Lucretia Wellin (1916-1985), who married Theodore “Ted” Alexander Lapham (1910-1955). The surname is Swedish in origins. My Stålberg branch traces back to Soderhamn Parish, Gävleborg Co., Hälsingland Province, Sweden before coming America, and Nyed Parish, Värmland Co., Värmland Province, Sweden before that. According to available research, the surname is an ornamental name composed of the words “stål,” meaning “steel,” and “berg,” meaning “mountain” or “hill.” The surname was first adopted in my line by my 5th great grandfather, Nils Larsson Stålberg (1810-1899), in about 1834. Nils was born in Värmland Province, which is known for its picturesque scenery, particularly the mountains which are rich in iron ore. This likely explains the choice of Stålberg as a surname, though Nils was also a blacksmith one point in his life, which may also explain the choice.

Seely (or Seeley) is the maiden name of my 3rd great grandmother, Betsy “Bettie” (Seely) Williams (1858-1947), who was the grandmother of my great grandmother, Maxine Elizabeth Davis (1912-1992), who married Delmar Clair Kernan (1908-1979). The surname is English in origins. The exact origins of my Seely branch is not presently known, as the furthest backI have been able to trace is to my 5th great grandfather, Obadiah Seely (ca. 1794-ca. 1852), who was born in Ontario (now Genesee) Co., New York and died in Pennsylvania. My people with this surname in America appear to trace back to Warwickshire, England. According to available research, moreover, the Seely (or Seeley) surname is a nickname based on personality for a person with a cheerful disposition, deriving from the Middle English word “seely” meaning “happy” or “fortunate,” and the Old English words “gesælig,” meaning “happy,” and “sæl,” meaning “happiness.”

Stephens is the maiden name of my 3rd great grandmother, Trizah Olive (Stephens) Agee (1873-1967), who was the grandmother of my great grandmother, Alice Lucretia Wellin (1916-1985), who married Theodore “Ted” Alexander Lapham (1910-1955). The surname is English in origins, though variations can be found in Scotland, Holland, and German. The exact origins of my Stephens branch is not presently known, as the furthest back I have been able to trace is to my 6th great grandfather, Phillip Stephens (ca. 1755-1830), who was born in Virginia and died in Tennessee. According to available research, the Stephens surname is a patronymic surname that derives from the personal name Stephen, which is a variation of Steven, a name popular in Christendom due to the martyred Saint of that name, which means “crown.”

Click here to learn more about Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge (Clicking this link will take you to another site.)

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8 thoughts on “Family History Through the Alphabet – S is for Surnames and Surnames that Start with S

  1. Pingback: Family History Through the Alphabet - S is for ... | Genealogy & History News

  2. Fabulous post William, and so thorough. I was introduced to patronymic surnames with my Finnish ancestors, I’ve found it takes a bit of getting used to, but can be very useful to work out who the father is too.

    • Thank you. :) Yes, you are right about working out who the father is. For many countries that have patronymic surnames, I have read that playing “the name game” is a great way to find the father.

  3. Thank you for the info on Sheridan. My GGF who came out of Ireland was Sheridan & though I knew of the possible “searcher/seeker” connection, I hadn’t heard the “mischievous elf” one. I’m actually using the surname as a basis for a fictional writing. Thanks for adding some magical fun to it! :)

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