Even in today’s society, who you are is often important in terms of who you are in relation to others. Back when surnames were being handed out, relationships were even more important, especially for the rich and titled, but also for the common man. Many surnames, in many languages, tell who our forefather was.
In English, it would seem obvious, although many fail to understand the significance. If your name ends in “son”, who’s your (great-great-great-grand) daddy? There are Johnson, and Jackson, Donaldson, our favorite commenter, Erickson, Tomson (although it’s often spelled Thomson, Thompson, or even Tompson), and Williamson.
I worked for several years with a Bill Williamson. I commented one day that his name was actually William, William’s son, and asked if his dad was a Bill, also. Dad’s name was Robert, but he and mom had immigrated from Wales, and Bill’s real first name was Gwyllem.
My blue-painted, claymore-wielding, skirt-wearing ancestors were much interested in lineage also. The Scottish-Gaelic word for “son” was Mac. A large percentage of Scottish names therefore mean “son of”. MacDougall, MacDonald, MacIntosh, MacKenzie, Macready, etc.
Fitz is an English/French prefix also meaning son of. It comes from the Latin, filius. It gives us names like Fitzsimmons, Fitzpatrick and Fitzgibbons. Fitz, however, means illegitimate son of. This was especially important to the royalty and aristocracy. The one surname which was not supposed to exist, was Fitzroy. This was an illegitimate son of a king, and had the power to cause civil war for inheritance rights.
To be the first son of someone important, meant inheriting….title, land, money, income and power. Second and third sons got next to nothing, and often had to beg for support from the first-born. There was pressure to go out into the world and perform daring feats to wrest some fame and fortune for themselves.
North America was not taken and settled by Spanish first-borns. The Spanish word hidalgo comes from “hijo d’algo” – meaning “son of *someone*”, or “a son with something”, a horse, a sword, and enough money to get into trouble. Much of history has been wrought by second sons trying to get a little, or a lot, for themselves.
Once upon a time, a large group of Scottish second-sons got together and decided to take over Ireland, since Scotland was already divvied up. Many were successful at obtaining land and serfs for themselves, and they settled in comfortably. First came love, then came marriage, pretty soon the baby-carriage and then the lazy pronunciation habits of the Irish changed all the good Scottish Macs into Irish Mcs. They became McArthur, McClure, McMahon and McMillan. This is where the slang term Micks, for Irishmen came from.
Ireland had already been taught English by the time the need for surnames occurred. Many were given the name, “the son of *their father*”. Lazy pronunciation soon turned son “of”, into O’Malley, O’Hara, O’Daye, O’Connor, and the like. Clocks and time are not Irish, but that same lax pronunciation turned, ten (hours) of the clock, into ten o’clock.
In Arabic, the word for son is Ibn. The Hebrew word is rendered in English as Ben. Israel’s first prime Minister was David Ben-Gurion. Many languages use a suffix rather than a prefix to indicate “son of”. In Polish, the majority of names end in –ski. All the rest are Polish toboggans, or so the Pole named Yantha told me.
From Russian, the Cyrillic-language, son-of suffix, comes to English as, of, off, ov and ev. Ivanoff and Petrov mean son of John, and son of Peter. Russians are often creative with their names, sometimes taking new ones to hide behind. Vladimir Lenin’s surname means ‘Iron.” To go him one better, Joseph Stalin adopted a name which means “Steel.” I’ve never read why Nikita Khrushchev took his last name. It has the “ev” suffix meaning son of, but the Russian word khrusht, means “beetle.”
It seems that most languages are only interested in who you were the son of. Russian is one of the few which also has an identifier for “daughter”. It takes the patronymic family name and adds the suffix “ova”. The female cosmonaut was Valentina Tereshkova.
In one of the James Bond movies, the writers did a little joke by giving a sexually aggressive, female Russian agent the double entendre name of Onatop. I can find no proof that Onatop is a real Russian name. Even if it were, correctly, she would be Onatopova, but that wouldn’t tickle teenage male humor.
Nordic languages like Swedish and Icelandic have the suffix “sen”, which means the same as “son.” They also have the female version, “dottir” for, you guessed it, daughter. In these languages, the surnames change every generation. If you are Gunnar Thorvaldsen, your father’s name is Thorvald. Your son is Erick Gunnarsen, and his male child, John Erickson, becomes a famous blog-commenter. (How did he sneak in here again? Somebody close and lock the door!)
Your female child would be Frieda Gunnarsdottir, and would keep that name even after marrying, but her little girl might be Inga Svensdottir.
I was going to title this post, “It’s All Relative”, but since a large part of the world still has a fascination with male offspring, I went with the son label. I know most of us are leery about revealing actual names on the open internet, but, do any of my readers have an “offspring of” name?