Family Names

My father’s family is from Ostfriesland, an area of Northwest Germany bordered by Holland and the North Sea.  Their language was Frisian/Low Saxon.  They were the people of Beowulf, and they invaded the British Isles early and were in turn invaded by the Romans, the Franks, the Saxons, the Vikings, Germanic tribes, and so on.  My ancestors were simple, poor farmers, and my did they have funny names.

I have tried to build family trees using the data bases in Ancestory, and I have found the most wonderful and weird names (actually, Wiard is one of their names). I can only imagine the trouble people had to go to to do this genealogy work, since there was a very unusual naming system, called Patronymics, used in the area until Napoleon invaded and ordered everybody to settle on a permanent last name. The system didn’t die out until the 1830’s. According to a German researcher named Ines Weissenberg, this is how first names were derived in Ostfriesland:

The first male child was named after the paternal grandfather.

The second male child got the name of the maternal grandfather.

First and second daughter were named after paternal and maternal grandmothers.

The third son was named after his father.

The fourth son was named after the father’s paternal grandfather.

The third daughter was named after the mother.

The fourth daughter was named after the mother’s paternal or even maternal grandmother.

Then, there were also other aspects of choosing a first name such as reusing a deceased child’s name for the next child of the same sex and naming the first daughter/son of a subsequent marriage after the deceased former spouse. These rules expressed the belief that a person continued to live through the descendants.

Last names were even more confusing, since your last name was usually your father’s first name.  If a man called Harm had three sons named Gerd, Jan, and Menno, their last name would be Harms, indicating they were Harm’s sons.  If Gerd had children, their last name would be “Gerdes”.  Jan’s children would have the last name “Janssen”, and Menno’s children would have the surname “Mennen”.  Last names changed from generation to generation.  The same names were used for first and last names.

One of my ancestors named Okke Poets had a son named Poet Okkens.  Lubbe Habben, a far distant grandmother, had a daughter she named Gretje Lubbens.  Zeede Ecken and her husband Riko Fredrichs name their son Ecko Riken, after her father, Ecko Focken.

Gertien, Taalke, Gretje, Geert, Geske, Mimke, Trienke, Lauke, and Evertje are some of the more wonderful women’s names I have found in my family.  Freerk, Harm, Weert, Wiard, Folkert, Heyke, Okke, Ullfert, Harrameke were some of the men’s names. Ostfriesland is no further than about 50 miles from places like Bremen, where people had names like Otto, Lena, Ernst, and Dora.

My name, using this system, would be Tilla Jacobs. My husband would be Christian Williams. Our son would be William Christians. Daughter would be Evelyn Christians.  How confusing.


Go back a couple of generations and figure out some family names for yourself using Patronymics.

87 thoughts on “Family Names”

  1. In the Bismarck airport waiting for my flight to Minneapolis and then to Tacoma. I am happy to see the post posted. Now let’s hope everything else works out with my flights.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d like to point out that it’s easier for you to assume the patronymic system since you are able to tie in to the actual patronymics a couple of generations back. When I try to do it, there is no patronymic starting point. In other words, I may have been named after my paternal grandfather and father, but those names wouldn’t have been their names under a patronymic system, and so on.


    1. If I were to calculate my patronymic name without adjusting the names of my father and his father, my name would be Richard Richards and it would become a closed loop for subsequent first sons in my family. Every one of them would have the same name.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I thought first daughter got named after paternal and maternal grandmothers? So do I need to add my dad’s name? Ruby Emma JoeBill? I got woken up by a phone call from a stranded participant in London so I’m a little muddled here.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Actually his legal first name was Joe Bill. When I worked in his legal office (when I was in college), I realized that it irritated him no end when he would get letters addresses to Joseph William.

          Liked by 2 people

        2. The confusion, I think, is that Renee’s explanatory sentence should have read, ” First and second daughters were named after paternal and maternal grandmothers RESPECTIVELY.”

          Liked by 1 person

    1. There was a very old professor at Concordia named Reider Thomte who grew up in the same Norwegian village as the author of Kristin Lavransdatter. She won a nobel prize for literature.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wait a minute! Sigrid Undset grew up in the capital of Norway, Oslo, which until 1925 was called Kristiania. By American standards it may have seemed like a village, but even at that time, it was Norway’s largest city. I’m guessing that your old professor grew up in Lillehammer where Undset later moved as an adult.


  3. Rise and Shine Baboons!

    I just read the post and responses before this one. My blood sugar is elevated after reading the pairings ideas, so now I am having a rush of ideas. They are sugar-driven, so of course they make no sense.

    My name would have been Josephine Harlan (or in Iceland, Harlansdotter). We have a Frieslander branch which settled in Pennsylvania in the 1740’s named Hammacher. The original Hammacher had 14 children, with 8 sons. HIs name was Adamus, and he named all 8 sons Adamus (Peter, Isaac, Christian–my ancestor, etc). All 8 sons served in the same unit in the Revolution, but in different years and phases of the war. That family took me the entire winter of 2015-16 to sort out. I found a Hammacher history from Lancaster County. That was the only hope of understanding it.

    As I have worked on our family trees, I find the Puritan names the most interesting and repetitive. I think they had something like this generational system. There were generations of Hannahs and Elizabeths, Eleazors and Ichabods. Then they started naming children after desired virtues. My favorites: Deliverance Potter, Delight Green, Prudence Marche.

    Liked by 2 people

        1. Even given that it was the beginning of the nineteenth have to wonder what his parents could have been thinking. Maybe it was a strategy to toughen him up.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I find it fascinating how different are the naming rituals of various cultures. In England, surnames were apparently based on your trade (Smith, Cartwright… ). Then the Scandinavians with the son/sen or datter (for a while, anyway) tacked onto he father’s first name. I’d like to read a book about this (or actually just add it to my stack) – anyone know a good one? I wonder what the French and the Germans do… And I think some Oriental cultures have the family name first…


    1. Also surnames based on a locality, like Birkholz. When nobody raveled very far from home, a given name and a descriptor like a place or a trade or a physical characteristic was sufficient.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. At the time that a lot of these surnames originated, Europe was divided into a lot more regional kingdoms with different influences and naming traditions, so there wouldn’t have been a single German or French tradition. As Ostfriesland had different naming practices from parts of Germany as nearby as Hamburg, so also Normandy, settled by Norsemen, would have had different naming practices from other parts of France.
      After the Norman invasion, Normans who stayed in Britain often anglicized their names, producing a whole new parcel of names we think of as British. I’m sure there were countless instances where naming traditions were traded and intermingled.


  5. I’m not sure what my name would be, as I was my father’s third daughter and my mother’s second. I know that my father’s mother wanted the boys in the family to be named Paul and Karl, and the girls Paula and Karla. All her children ignored her wishes.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I would be Susan Stansdotter….In old Sweden the children took the last name of father’s first….my brother: Stephen Stansson.

    My Norwegian grandparents and family are Haasarud. The explanation: the farm/farmstead was called a rud or ruud…..thus Haasrud…and somehow Haasarud…perhaps the added ‘a’ was plural or possive when put together.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I received the ‘Sweet Sprin’ yesterday afternoon…in attempt to reply it came to the baboon page but was blank with a message I’d arrived by errror.
    I did enjoy the e e cummings poem…he is my favorite poet..and he wrote some fantastic lectures given at Harvard and recorded as such.

    My all time favorite is ‘nobody looses all the time’….


  8. The names that originally described a personal characteristic and sometimes unfortunately became a family surname are especially interesting. Campbell, for example, came from Gaelic and means “crooked mouth”. There was a professor at Carleton, in math I think, with the name Malraison. In French that would be ” bad reason” or, I suppose, “crazy”. How would you like that as a family name?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Husband had a college friend with the last name of Guardelebene, which means “watch out for this one” in Italian suggesting they aren’t very trustworthy.


  9. My dad was adopted, and we have no idea who his biological father was. His birth mother’s father was Steen Steensen Blicher. It makes my head hurt trying to figure out what my name would be using Patronymics. Just call me PlainJane.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Gee, you guys all seem so fluent with these systems. As near as I can figure, my name would have been Paul George. Or Paul Georgeson. I would have hated it in either case. As it is my middle name is Paul. I’ve always disliked that, all the more so when I grew up and realized my middle name came from my paternal grandfather, a cranky old bigot whom nobody liked much, especially his middle son (my father).

    The Grooms name is simple. My family name is English, where occupations conveyed names. My ancestors shoveled a lot of horse shit, I guess, and forked a lot of hay.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Hi–
    This is a fun story.

    My Great Grandmother on Dad’s side was ‘Ernestina’. My Dad’s name was ‘Joseph ErnestSteven’.
    My brother is ‘Ernest Steven’

    Because I’m the ‘accident’ of the family, we joke I’m named after Ben Cartwright in Bonanza, because Mom had a crush on Loren Greene.
    (Bonanza: 1959-1973. I was born in 1964)

    Liked by 4 people

    1. By the way, I would be Victor Joseph, which isn’t a bad name at all. Maybe I can use that…

      My mom knew someone named ‘Valentine Neuman’. Isn’t THAT a great name!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I had a friend who was (pick your preferred adjective) weird, original, iconoclastic or distinctive. John was conventional when naming his children, but more original when it came to the pet name he usually used when calling them. He named his first son Gil but always called him Streamside or Streamer. Presumably, Gil was conceived in a moment of passion along the banks of a river.

    John had a second son, although by that time his marriage had begun to be strained. John explained the appearance of his second son by noting that he and his wife were buzzed on beer while sharing a steamy sauna in the nude. Had John stuck with his naming system, his two sons would have been Streamside and Saunahouse.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I’m going to go with the 4th daughter system, even though I think of myself as the 3rd daughter – my parents’ first daughter died at a young age.

    I’ll use the method of First Name = Mother’s Paternal Grandmother, Middle Name = Mother’s Maternal Grandmother, Last Name = Father’s First Name.

    Eliza Bertha Elmers.


    Liked by 1 person

  14. If I am following this correctly (and that is notable a given), my sibs and I would be Harriet, Donald and Valentine Johns (or Jacks, for a more casual approach).
    My parents must have been using this system when my brother was born as Donald IS his name. My sister was, in fact, named after out mother, something you don’t often see, but she has long had a fascination with our grandmother, Valentine, who died before any of us was born .
    Valentine had bipolar disorder (before it had that name) and may have died in an institution. My mother’s history with her was not a happy one and she would not speak much about her. When we have tried to do some genealogical work on Valentine, there are only dead ends.

    My sister’s being named after our mother was the result of my parents’ plan to name the third child after whichever parent matched the child’s gender. They did have different nicknames so it wasn’t obvious that they were both named Dorothy (Dor and Didi, respectively).

    Liked by 3 people

  15. I’m glad that I wasn’t the second son being named after my mother’s grandfather. While it’s amusing to have an ancestor named Wilzue, I wouldn’t like to be the one to carry on that name.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. i’ll remind you of last names i taught: Aho, Ahola, and Frikken. taught a few Saur’s and one Sweet.
    mother’s birth name: Wetter, for weather in german. Wonder how that name was assigned. dates back at least to 14th century.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. OT: One of those weird synchronicities. It’s such a nice day I went out to rake the backyard and gardens. Among the debris from the gardens is a plastic tag from a bedding plant, a salvia. The variety? East Friesland.

    Liked by 4 people

  18. Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of ads tacked on to web sites or included as sponsored ads that offer to reveal the origins of your family name and also whether you are related to royalty. These are laughable and you have to wonder who would bite on those offers. In the first place, you would have to have a really unusual last name to get any meaningful information about its origins. For my last name, Nelson, I would learn it means “son of Nels”.
    I wonder if the site would try to convince me that I was therefore related to some famous Nelsons. Fact is, the family name didn’t become Nelson until my grandfather arrived here in 1916.
    As for connection to royalty, most anyone who has done any amount of genealogical research knows that almost everyone can find some connection to royalty if you go back far enough. And royalty was so inbred that once you find that connection, you are related to just about everyone.
    Information about name origins and royal family trees has been around for years for anyone willing to look. I wonder why those sites have started to appear now?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. There is a surge of interest in the culture for family tree info. I think the arrival of inexpensive DNA testing explains much of this. The popularity of TV shows on family genetic interest are also a factor. These don’t require research work. You just write a check and learn if you have Native Americans sitting somewhere in your family tree.

      My son in law recently acquired a new half-sister whose existence was totally unknown to him. Relatively inexpensive DNA analysis made that possible.


      1. I’m assuming it was the newly acquired half-sister that had the DNA testing? Same father, different mothers is my guess? The reverse of my father’s half-sister. No DNA testing was involved, just a diligent search of the National Archives in Copenhagen of birth records. They proved that my dad, who was born out of wedlock and immediately placed for adoption, has a six years younger sister who still lives in Copenhagen. She didn’t receive this news until she was 82 years old, and it was a complete shock to her that there was a whole branch on the family tree that new nothing about.


        1. Your guess is exactly right, PJ. This woman grew up knowing she had been adopted, and she was fine with that. But in her early thirties she began wondering about her father, so she began researching. She found a place that knew who were dad was but would not reveal the name while her father still lived. He died a few years ago, so they passed the information along. With it, she was able to connect all the dots.

          The news came as a bombshell to some in the family, and it is a sensitive topic right now. My son in law is easy with it. As far as we can tell, his dad never knew the affair he had in college resulted in a child. The woman seeking answers to this mystery has had a great life. She is beautiful, married, successful in business and happy with her life. She only wanted a bit of information, and she found it.

          Even so, when I move to my new home, this is a topic we will avoid. And that’s okay.

          Liked by 1 person

  19. A short while ago, we had a blog that asked the question of what makes us giggle. This morning I was perusing the NY Times recipe for Greek skillet pie with Feta and greens. The recipe calls for phyllo dough, home made or store bought. As always I read the comments of the cooks who have tried the recipe, the first two had me in tears with laughter. Here they are:

    Otto Nordpol 1 year ago
    There are chefs and there are pastry chefs. I am not the latter and this recipe turned into a rare culinary catastrophe. I wound up with a bunch of doughy dumplings and a kitchen strewn with pots, pans, bowls, boards, tongs, grills, rolling pins, and green bits of chopped vegetables all over the place. This is not a recipe for the poorly organized or those without a sympathetic connection to pastry. But, We Are Scientists, and to experiment is to nobly bear failure every now and then.

    Gerry 1 year ago
    Thank you for injecting a note of humour into this. I contemplated just abandoning my house rather than the clean-up involved! A dear older friend, Greek by birth and a fantastic cook, raised her eyebrows when I described my adventure and commented, “Darling, why do you think I buy my phyllo ready made.”

    Liked by 6 people

    1. It’s always best to spend your energy wisely. I knew a guy, an engineer by occupation, who set out to build his own custom kitchen cabinets. He started by selecting the oaks and cutting them down, then had them sawn into boards, which he stacked in his garage to dry. The guy was very exacting, very meticulous. Obsessive compulsive, if you ask me. His cabinets would be beautiful and perfect, I have no doubt. But the last time I saw him, just before his wife left him, the kitchen still had no cabinets.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I speculate that the cabinet making wannabe lacked one critical bit of knowledge: self-knowledge. It is easy to imagine the glories of finishing a superb woodworking project. While many people might find that a reason to buy chisels, exotic saws and instructional videos, some people escape disappointment because they know themselves well enough to recognize the kind of project they lack the discipline and skill to finish.


      2. i had that guy rent a house form me with the idea of doing work for rent and after a year and 3 partial projects all really nicely done but a long way form done i knew i was in trouble.
        i sold the house and if i remember right i had to hire someone to finish. the guy was upset because they wouldne be thinking about the level of perfection he was.
        north dakota patent attourney
        probubally good for his business bad for my rental world


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