February 5, 2023

The origins of Surnames and

their meanings

By Ismail Veli

Throughout the history of humans our names have been an important part of our identity. They often have a meaning which has been lost in the passage of time. Many cultures see it as important to name their children after their parents in order to honour their family and provide continuation. Though we in the West often consider Surnames as a natural process of continuing a family name many cultures do in fact use the father’s first name as a surname. A case in point is Ismail Velimyself. Born in 1956 I was registered as Ismail Mehmet. It was not until I had my first son and named him after my father Mehmet that the problem of conforming to the British tradition of using a surname became important, therefore I had no option other than hiring a solicitor and making a legal statute of declaration to change this to Ismail Mehmet Veli. Being young I was not aware of my family roots so my grandfathers name acted as the first surname in my family. I am now known as Ismail Mehmet Veli. But what do our names really mean to us.

Judging by their meaning, a lot. Most names in ancient history had a meaning, either to identify a person’s job, family habit, peculiarity and so forth. Therefore if we transfer ourselves into a small medieval English village we would not be at all surprised to find a few Smiths (Blacksmith) Mr Rose, Mr Tailor, Mr Cook and Mr Miller. These are generally well known names, but how and who actually introduced the concept of having family surnames?? This is what I set out to explore. My findings turned out not only to be interesting but extremely educational and an immensely rewarding research.

It seems the first people in history to use surnames were the Chinese. in 2852 BC (A total of 4866 years ago) the Chinese Emperor Fushi made the custom compulsory. The Chinese generally have 3 names. A painting of Lin Zexu a Chinese heroFirst comes the surname which is one of 438 words from the sacred Chinese poem, ”Po-Chia-Hsing”. Then second is the generation name, which is based on a 30 character long poem adopted by every family and the given name comes last.

The early Romans initially used only one name for example Romulus, Tarquinii, Horatius and so forth. They later adopted the custom of using three or even four names. For example Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. The 2 middle names were the family names passed on from the family history while last name (if there was one) indicated an achievement. As the conqueror of Hannibal at the battle of Zama in Africa in 202 BC, Publius Cornelius Scipio added Africanus . A last name Germanicus or Britannicus would be indicative of that persons achievements in those countries. Cicero the famous advocate, orator and Senator of Rome was in fact Marcus Tullius. The name Cicero was given to the family as their nose had a small dent resembling a “chick pea” which is what Cicero (pronounced ‘Chi-Che-Ro’ in Italian ) means.

The British names like John Williamson, Henry Johnson simply meant John son of William and Henry son of John respectively. other peculiarities would also play a part. A Mr Brown would indicate that persons dark hair or complexion, Mr Small or Mr Short because they were actually short. A Mr Stout would indicate (no not draft of Guinness) a person’s stubborn or proud nature. Names have gone through immense changes over the centuries therefore their meanings or their original forms have become more obscure. The customs mentioned above Alexander the greatwere almost universally applied to many countries across the world. The Dutch, the Norwegians and Danish would suffix their name as in ”Sen” (Williamsen/ son of William) The Greeks ”poulos” Angelopoulos ”son of Angelo”. The Turks ”oglu” as in Mehmetoglu ”son of Mehmet. The Polish ”wiecz’ as in Zubowiecz. Many people often wonder why so many Armenian names end with ”ian” Mangoyian, Zartorian and so forth. Again its simply son of Mango. A surprising one to readers would be Fitzpatrick. Fitz simply means son ”Fitz-Patrick”. The Teutonic languages also had names that had power, war and struggle as their speciality. For example Ethel meant ‘noble”. Gerard ”spear head” and Henry ”home ruler”. The Greeks and Turks do have one thing in common that is their tendency to ”Glorify names”. Kurt ”Wolf”, Simsak ”Lightning”, or in female names to romanticise Gulay ” rose moon”, Cicek ”flower” . The Greeks Andros ”Manly” Dorothea ”gift of God” We could go on and on.

The current form of using surnames in Europe seems to have originated from the Venetian aristocracy around the 10th or 11th centuries. The contact between the Europeans in particular during the Crusader periods helped to spread this custom to other aristocratic families of Europe. The French, British, Germans and then Spanish began to increasingly use surnames. By the early 1400s it became an Einstein a German Jewestablished form of usage in most parts of Europe. As societies became increasingly urbanised and the governments began to record taxation, military services etc using surnames became an efficient form of identification for the Lords in keeping an eye on the feudal peasants. Poland and Russia followed in the 15th century.

The Scandinavians on the other hand still carried on using the father’s name as a surname well into the 19th century. Turkey only introduced surnames after it became a Republic in the 1920s. Mustafa Kemal the founder of the Republic led the way by taking ”Ataturk” (father of the Turks) as his name. In fact that’s how most people know him today. Though Greek Cypriots have used surnames for generations the Turkish Cypriots (TC) only began to use this as a result of Turkey pressuring the TC to take surnames after 1974. Very often individuals have been pressured to take surnames that have nothing to do with their ancestral names. Fortunately I myself took a conscience decision that it was time to change the archaic method of using my father’s names as a surname. Had I been aware that my first ancestors names in Lurucina were Yusuf, Mehmet, Mustafa, Katri and Ismail I may have taken a conscience decision to use one of those, as it has turned out I feel comfortable with the surname of Veli which means ”parent/guardian”. How appropriate is that??

 ISMAIL (Hebrew meaning God will listen)

MEHMET (Arabic meaning praise worthy)

VELI (Arabic meaning parent/guardian) 

See below for more names and their meanings and origins under the pictures.

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First Name




born wealthy Yoruba/Nigerian
Alexander defender of men Greek
Anthony praiseworthy or precious Latin
Ata father Turkic
Akcay white creek Turkic
Anna grace Hebrew
Alawa pea Algonquin/ American Indian
Awanasa my home Cherokee Indian
Barbara barbarian/Foreigner Greek
Brian strength Celtic
Benjamin son of the right hand Hebrew
Christopher Christ bearer Greek
Chumani dew drops Sioux Indian
Darlene beloved Anglo Saxon
Dilruba one who steals hearts; beautiful Turkic
Doruk peak of the mountain Turkic
Frederick peaceful ruler Teutonic
Chan-Juan the moon; graceful Chinese
Chang Smooth Chinese
Gunay bright day Turkic
Hussein good looking Arabic
Juan Delgado John the thin Spanish
Mendoza cold mountain Spanish
Patricia of noble birth Latin
Samuel heard by God Hebrew
Vega meadow Spanish
Vladimir Lord of the world Slavic


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5 thoughts on “The origins of Surnames and their meanings By Ismail Veli

  1. Funny thing! In Germany the surnames very often have to do something with professions in the Middle Ages, such as Meier, Schulze, Müller, Färber and so on. My last name “Kratzer” means in English language “Scratchers”. I’ve always thought that this must have had to do with an earlier profession. I first suspected it had something to do with engraving. Later I found out that the tools for cleaning and smoothing of wool were called “Kratzer” in the Middle Ages and the people who used them, were just the “Scratchers”!

  2. My surname is Brown, and my fathers side of the family are all dark haired and swarthy complexion…Very interesting Ismail.

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