Last Names - Surnames

Compound word surnames have idiosyncrasies which create indexing and researching issues in records across the United States. This is true when compound word surnames are misunderstood like many Spanish names that consist of two surnames, a paternal and maternal surname in that order. Just to make it hard, Portuguese custom is the reverse, maternal and then paternal surname. Examples abound of prefixes not understood to be part of a surname, but instead thought to be a free standing middle name or an optional part of the surname; Dutch examples of van der Pool and ten Broeck; French examples of L'Hiver and Du Bois; British Isle examples of O'Reilly, Fitz-William, ap Rhys, or McAlpin. Each of those examples adds at least one extra letter under which a name might be indexed. Suffixes cause problems with computer sorting and melding of two or more distinct men into one. Hyphenates really only cause issues when the hyphen is absent or in the computer age when the surname exceeds the amount of characters available for a field. Hereditary titles create confusion when people from other countries create marriage and land ownership records in the United States. A multitude of surname examples appear in blog entries entitled:


Compound Word Surnames

Spanish surnames can be a genealogist's delight. When Maria Lopez Perez appears in a record, it means Maria was a daughter in a family with a paternal surname Lopez and a maternal surname of Perez. Father's first surname, mother's second surname, simple, f and f. Just like footnotes have the first name first, f and f. When Maria marries Gabriel Ramirez Montoya, she may decide to use the name Maria Lopez Perez de Ramirez or she may still use her birth name of Maria Lopez Perez. Clerks all over America with varying degrees of knowledge could index this name alternately under L, P, d or R, when technically it should always be indexed as Lopez. However, just because it should be indexed as Lopez does not mean it will be indexed as Lopez. Search all the possibilities, or the very entry skipped will be for the name needed. There are additional current problems due to written accents and computer sorting.

Some Native American compound word surnames like Blue Jacket or Nighthorse alternately have a space or no space between words. When one of those words is treated as a prefix, first name or middle name and sometimes ignored and other times indexed, it will appear differently in indexes. If a researcher is not familiar with a surname, Blue might appear to be a given name or middle name and Jacket the surname, instead of a compound word surname beginning with a B, which might be spelled as one word or two. BlueJacket, Bluejacket, Blue Jacket all refer to a family in the Shawnee tribe.



There are surnames originating from other countries with prepositions as a prefix. Van, Von, Mac, O', ap, and du which also can be spelled with a space or without a space between the prefix and the surname. These prefixes can change the sound and perception of the second part of the compound name so Mc Loud sounds like Mac Cloud, McCloud, McLoud, MacCloud and MacLoud, which adds the letter C and L to the regular M or Mac under which this name might be indexed. Here is a newspaper article in which a surname is spelled McLonan and M'Lonan within four sentences of each other.

    .Reading Eagle McLonan vs. M'Lonan

This can vary by person, family and era. Many older county record index books had a special page for Mac and Mc, so those names would not be interspersed with the surnames beginning with the letter M. Most registers did not have a separate page for Van.

Common usage for Ludwig van Beethoven and Vincent Van Gogh differ. Beethoven was German with a Dutch/Flemish surname from his grandfather. There are few people who wouldn't first check surnames under B for Beethoven. Vincent Van Gogh equally as famous as Beethoven is known as Van Gogh, not Gogh, also of Dutch origin, but most would search indexes under V not G.

Examples of Dutch origin:

  • Van Meter, Vanmeter VanMetre, VanMeter, Van Metre, Vanmetre
  • De Wit, Dewitt, De With, De Witte
  • Ten Broeck, Tenbroeck, Ten Broek
  • Vanderpool, van der Pool, Vander Pool, Van Derpool, Ver Pool
Some variants of McAlpin:
  • Mac Alpin 
  • M'Calpin 
  • McAlpin 
  • MacAlpine 
  • McCalpin 
  • M'Alpin

The Welsh name ap Rhys meaning son of Rhys has evolved into Price. FitzPatrick is uniquely Irish, meaning son of Patrick. Other surnames with the prefix Fitz came the Norman tradition, the word fils meaning son. It appears to be unique to the British Isles as an Anglicized form of "son of." Fitz can mean the other side of the blanket for royalty, the most prominent example being FitzClarence, an illegitimate branch of the Hanover family. Fitzgerald can and does appear as Fitz Gerald. Fitzwilliam is a compound word surname without the space or hyphen, however, it also appears as:

  • Fitz William 
  • Fitz-William 
  • FitzWilliam  

Other common Fitz surnames are Fitzroy, Fitzjames, Fitzgilbert, Fitzsimmons, and FitzHugh.

French surnames and their angelicized contortions have a variety of articles and prepositions: 

  • De La Roche, delaRoche
  • Delacroix, De la Croix
  • Du Bois, DuBoise 
  • L'Hiver 
  • LeBlanc, Le Blanc 
  • L'Angelier, Langelier, Loungley 
  • St. Pierre, Saint Pierre, Saint Peter, St. Peter 


O'Reilley, O'Reilly, O. Reilly all sound like Irish origin surnames. In context, if you heard Patrick O'Reilly you might spell the surname O'Reilly but if you heard Augustine O. Raleigh you might spell it differently. A friend of Irish descent jokingly called the family of our friend Barbara Olinger (pronounced All in ger), the O'Linger family. Sometimes it's all in the punctuation or lack thereof.



There are suffixes to surnames, generational titles, Jr., Sr., III, patronymic lineage names son, dottir, religious suffixes which refer to the religious order a person belongs, and honorary titles and degrees, M.D., Esq., C.P.A. Religious suffixes, abbreviations of various Catholic religious orders, may be extremely helpful in differentiating various religious of the same name. Honorary titles and degrees have no place in indexing surnames, however, generational titles which differentiate a man from his son or grandson, do.  Suffix surname problems are worse in computer generated indices, I, II, III, IV, V, Jr. Sr. lead to Sr. vs. I, Jr. vs II, etc. Patronymic surnames from Scandinavian countries are frequently standardized for instance, Anderson rather than Andersdottir. Attached suffixes (Anderson) which mean son or son of can be clues to ethnicity, but don't cause the indexing issues as detached suffixes do especially with computer sorting programs. In that case, Brown Jr., Brown, Jr., Brown II and Brown, II may all refer to the same person and yet be sorted by a computer and placed in different order dependant on the comma or the extra space or the indexers preference for Jr. vs. II. Sometimes a man is known as Brown Jr. until his father dies and then he becomes Brown Sr. and his son previously Brown III becomes Brown Jr. This also causes controversy in indexing and differentiation.



There was a five year period from 2005-2010 when the French required double hyphens, as in Martin--DuBois.

Hyphenated surnames in America are generally a product of the egalitarian late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s naming patterns for children. It can mean that the mother was a strong willed woman and the father was secure and supportive. In the 1990s and 2000s, same sex couples also often use a hyphenated name or an entirely made up third surname. Another reason to have a hyphenated surname in America if the surname like, Smith, Jones, Johnson, Brown or Davis, Williams or Miller, is so common it is almost like not having a surname at all. Inheritance may require a name change or name hyphenated to prevent a surname dying out; someone may inherit land only with a name change to Buchanan. Another subset of compound surnames come from adoption issues with children keeping their original surname as a middle name or as a part of a hyphenated surname.

Double barrelled names in England support a certain amount of distinction, high faluting, pretension, posh or otherwise. The name Smythe-Wickham brings a country house to mind. Wickham-Smythe doesn't have the same feel, but would be infinitely better on indexers. Any surname index will have pages of surnames beginning with Sm just because of the Smith issue. There is also the aristocratic issue of a surname and a title, which can cause indexer multiple headaches even when they know the issues. For researchers, first exposed to the contradictions, the only answer to search under every possibility, is actually a help.



The other obvious aspect of compound surnames in England would be surnames, titles and multiple titles. Hereditary titles create confusion, especially hard to comprehend in the United States, because we have no inherent background knowledge. Many Americans recognize Prince Charles of England as the Prince of Wales, not so many would recognize him as the Duke of Rothesay. Many fewer Americans know his son, Prince William as the Duke of Cambridge and still even fewer know Prince Harry is not yet the Duke of anything, but can use the surname Mountbatten-Windsor, though in the Army he is known as Captain Harry Wales. It just isn't background knowledge for Americans, though it very well may be for British subjects.

If the current Earl of March, Charles Henry Gordon-Lennox, purchased a horse racing property in Fayette Co., Kentucky when he was Lord Settrington before his grandfather died in 1989, he might be referred to Charles Settrington, Charles Gordon-Lennox Jr., or Charles Gordon-Lennox II. His father's name is currently Charles Henry Gordon-Lennox, Earl of Richmond and his son's current name is Charles Henry Gordon-Lennox, Lord Settrington. If Kentucky Utilities Company needed a Right of Way across that imaginery property, he is Charles Henry Gordon-Lennox, Earl of March. I am not a legal professional and have no idea if those titles should or would be included in a Deed, Mortgage or Right of Way Agreement, in addition to his name. They could be indexed separately and differently, so I would search under each eventuality. As a photographer he used to be known as Charles Settrington and now is known as Charles March. I don't know if those are "legal names" or aliases or noms de plume, creative names. I do know I would search every way I could imagine for his records, so I might find as many as possible.

In America, titles are earned through education, ministerial studies or military rank; examples of which would be Doctor, Rev., General. Titles in America are not earned through inheritance; examples of which would be, Duke, Marquis or Earl. Just to confuse the issue, each of those titles is also known in the United States as a first name. The Marquis de la Fayette is an example of a title and a surname that has morphed into given names of Marcus, Marc, Lafayette and Lafe. 

Surnames were invented to begin to differentiate people with an additional name with geographic, charasteristic, economic or patronymic attributes; now they are a form of legal identification. What seems unique or at least uncommon in this country can be ubiquitous in another country. I know a woman named Pasang Sherpa from Nepal. She is the only one I know, however in her country Pasang meaning born on Friday, is the first name, all things being equal, of about approximately 1/7th of the population. Some Sherpas have begun adding middle names to help differientiation. Compound surnames would be a treat to deal with in this case in which thousands have the same name.

Indexing compound surnames is so involved that Joy Misa and John Steenwinkel published a paper in February 2012 with an Appendix on the subject by country of origin. One main point, if it is known how the subject indexes his or her own surname, that is the first choice. Given the multiple complexities, it is not surprising surnames from other countires of origin are indexed incorrectly, but amazing any are done right at all. A thorough researcher keeps in mind all the ways a name might be indexed, correctly or incorrectly and checks them all.

"My family has always spelled it this way" doesn't excuse a researcher from examining all possible spellings, misspellings, typos, prefixes, suffixes, titles and compound word surnames. It's how others perceived, indexed, pronounced and interpreted the surname, that gives a surname it's spot correctly or wrongly in an index or record book. Clerks, ministers, enumerators, editors, teachers, priests, lawyers, journalists, truly any record creator in the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s, had a great deal of leeway and uneven training across population, geography or time. In addition surnames in different branches of the same family evolved with slight spelling discrepancies. A knowledgeable clerk may have made things worse by overcorrecting. Priests aggravated name confusion situations by translating names into Latin that were never Latin to begin with and translators of records may have done the same in reverse translating Zimmerman into Carpenter, Jesus into Hay Zeus, or Juanita into Wanita.

Compare for simplicity's sake, a non compound example of a surname which is also an English word. Americans generally use the word GRAY for the color mixed from black and white, whilst the British use GREY. There are discussions about Gray being a surname of Scottish ancestry and Grey being a surname of English ancestry. The words are interchangeable in the United States, search both ways, even if your family has never used the other spelling. Problems arise not always from how surnames are supposed to be, but how other people perceive them, including neighbors, indexers, enumerators, typists, data entry personnel, clerks, and recorders.

Ida Sherwood Bettis is my paternal grand mother. Aunt Clara is my great aunt. I can remember every nooks and crany of that house and yard...

Eric Bettis Eric Bettis 25. July, 2017 |

I would be happy to forward your name, connection, and email if you wish.

Barbara K. Henritze Barbara K. Henritze 06. November, 2016 |

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