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Etymology and Genealogy

In a word, what has Etymology have to do with Genealogy? Well in short, history is history, whether it is the history of a family, a type of automobile or where a word came from. Etymology deals with the origin and historical development of a linguistic form as shown by determining its basic elements. Since a genealogy researcher is trying to discover the origin of a family line, the language and dialect spoken by ancestors gives us a clue as to where to look. It is more than just trying to discover if your family might be related to some historically significant royal name.
There is a vast array of groups of people on this planet speaking many hundreds of different languages. Even, when speaking the same language, there are pockets of dialects which are formed from a language due to physical or cultural isolation. Fortunately, for genealogists, etymology has been thoroughly covered by others who enjoy such historical pursuits. Running down words and their origin does not sound like fun to me, but I appreciate the end result which is in its final analysis something that can help my genealogical search.
Family names, or surnames began to be used in Europe in the 12th century, however the practice was not widely used for several centuries after that. Of course, the frequency a name used, or the popularity of the use of a surname, like Smith or Jones can belabor the hunt of a particular line. In the 13th century about one third of the male population was William, Richard or John. Talk about not having much imagination. Today, perhaps it could be said you name your son anything but, William, Richard or John. The lack of different first names, and the problem with too many in the village called John, caused a second name to be used; often descriptive of their occupation was brought about. Like John Baker as different as John Carpenter or John Schmidt which meant he was a metal worker.
Elements in a name can be traced back to their origins. For example, let us take my grandfather’s first name of ‘Elmer’. If you didn’t know his last name was ‘Smith’ you might not get the German heritage. On the list of ‘Elements in Germanic Names’ of the website I found the following description: “al, adal, el “noble” from Old German adal, Old English aaoel, Old Norse aoal (Albert, Adelaide, Elmer)”.
By the way, if you want to learn more about what is behind a name, I highly recommend the site listed above.
In more recent times, the naming of offspring has less to do with tradition and family history and more about being “different” or liking the sound of a name. Further back in the past, more often than not, an effort to name a sibling after a grandparent or to honor some portion of the family’s history or the family’s ethnic heritage was in vogue. For this reason, names become a hint or clue about the origins, customs and history of a particular family line. For example, I found the first name “Pleasant” Owen in a generation in Kentucky and was able to find his name sake, another Pleasant Owen in Virginia a generation back. Something I could not have done by any other way than by the common first name. So names can be a guide, especially if they are uncommon.
Over time, languages evolve due to changes in pronunciations. Vocabulary and grammar change in emphasis as time marches on. Sometimes you discover that names change quite suddenly due to the impatience and sometimes barely literate record keepers themselves. For example, two Smith brothers married two sisters with the last name of Tussing. Come to find out, it was another curious connection between German and French ancestries as Tussing was really from the French surname Tusiant. It is theorized that the changing of this name was from the point they were met walking off the ship from Europe. Suddenly in America, they were recorded with the last name of Tussing. Since my ggggg-gf Adam Smith married a Jackman, which goes back to Joan of Arc fame in France, such evidence supports one researcher who wrote that my family left Europe by way of France, even though they were German Baptists.
So who would have believed that such clues could be gleaned from an ordinary word? One single word amongst millions can offer a lot of history.

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