One-name studies focus all occurrences of a surname, such as its geographical distribution and its changes in that distribution over the centuries. The research might also attempt to reconstruct the genealogy of the lines that bear it.

Although many names have multiple origins (for example those that indicate an occupation), it’s not uncommon when studying a surname to try to identify a single place of origin – in particular, if the name seems to derive from a location. 

In this article, we will explore the details of one-name studies, and give you some advice on how to get started (or continue) with surname research. 

What are One-Name Studies?

The research of a single surname and its history involves collecting data to understand:

  • The origin or early references of the name;
  • The meaning of the name’s (whether it’s patronymic, topographical, toponymic, occupational, or a mix of them);
  • The name’s relative frequency and distribution both geographically and in time;
  • The patterns of migrations; and
  • The name variants and deviants.

A one-name study is generally built around large-scale sets of key genealogical data, which includes information such as births, marriages and deaths, census records and wills. As a study develops, a wider range of record types can be added to the dataset, including original records specific to individual locations.

Two men bearing the surname Sirtori, the one I've been personally researching for years.
Two men bearing the surname Sirtori, the one I've been personally researching for years. Source: Family collection.

Surname Types

Surnames have stories to tell. There are eight main types in which they can be classified, although in some cases more than one might apply, especially if a surname has multiple origins and therefore multiple possible meanings.

Locative

A type of surname derived from the place where someone came from or lived. In England, this is the most common type of surname. A locative surname can be topographical, referring to a distinctive geographical feature, or toponymic, derived from a place name.

Examples: Topographical: “Green”, “Hill”, “Langridge”. Toponymic:”Beckham”, “Helmsley”.

Occupational or Metronymic

Surnames derived from the occupation of the person bearing it.

Examples: “Cheeseman”, “Thatcher”.

Postholder

Surnames derived from holding a particular post.

Examples: “Hayward” or “Bailey”.

Patronymic and Matronymic

Patronymic surnames are derived from the forename of the father, while Matronymic ones are derived from the forename of the mother.

Examples: “Fitzgerald”, “Johnson”, “Williams”, “Margetson”, “Tillotson”.

Diminutive forename

Surnames based on forenames that have been altered.

Examples: “Bartlett”, “Miskin”, “Towcock”.

Genitive

Surnames name implying ownership by someone.

Examples: “Squires”, “Manners”.

Nickname or Physical Appearance

Surnames based on nicknames or physical appearance.

Examples: “Fox”, “Longfellow”, “Redhead”.

Variants and Deviants of a Surname

When you study a surname, you have to cover more than its more usual spelling. That’s why it’s important to be able to identify variants of a specific registered name (and those that are not). 

The term ‘deviant’ was coined by the Guild of One-Name Studies President, Derek Palgrave, and it describes those apparent surname variants that were really clerical errors in recording or transcription. In other words, spelling variants that the person concerned would actually have used. In former times, names got recorded with a wide range of spellings, but individuals themselves may have used many versions too. Many people were illiterate could not sign their own name.

My great-grandmother Luisa was registered as “Luisa Cumi” in her birth, baptism, marriage and death certificates. Because her father, “Natalio Comi“, had died shortly before she was born, his surname had been permanently changed without anyone who would rectify it. Had Luisa passed this surname, all her descendants would have been “Cumi“. 

Depending on the consistency with which the name is recorded in official documents, the Guild suggests that if the vicar or clerk had consistently used a given spelling over many years, then it should be considered as a variant. Another way of determining what’s a variant and what’s a deviant is to limit the first to those still found today. The advice for a variant would be limited to:

  • A name spelling that the person was known to have used (proven through signature evidence on wills, marriage bonds, etc); or
  • A name spelling used by officials on a consistent and persistent basis over a period of years.

A deviant, on the other hand, is any other spelling recorded randomly and inconsistently, or those with spellings derived from enumeration, transcription and indexing errors, contemporary or modern.

Starting a One-Name Study

The best way to start a one-name study is by using family reconstruction. Begin by gathering information about the surname and those that bore it, such as vital records, censuses, Wills, as well as naming patterns and spacing of births.

Make sure you also cover migration and links between different name variants. This will help you determine which name spellings are genuine variants and which are deviants. 

A distribution analysis will let you calculate the relative frequency of the name in different places and across time, taking you one step closer to finding the origin of the name.

You can register your one-name study in the Guild of One-Name Studies, using the online or printed forms available on their website. There is a once-only registration fee of £14.00, which includes the registration of a reasonable number of variants. For studies primarily in England and Wales, the Guild Marriage Index and the Guild Marriage Challenge can assist in these tasks.

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