patronymics

Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.

Patronymics is the custom or practice of naming children after their father. A "patronymic" is a family name, typically a surname, derived from the name of one's father or other paternal ancestor, especially by the addition of a suffix or prefix indicating descent. The most familiar may be the custom of creating a surname by adding the suffix "son" or "sen" to the father's first name. Thus, the son of Richard would be surnamed Richardson or Richardsen. Although patronymics is still practiced in some cultures, over time more consistent surnames became practical. Matronymics, on the other hand, is the naming of a child after the mother, which is common in some cultures. Patronymics and matronymics are also known as naming conventions or naming patterns. Naming conventions may also include patterns in giving the first and middle names to a child.

An understanding of patronymics -- and the history of surnames, in general, is important to genealogists, particularly in the region being researched. Not only is there the issue of identifying patterns within a particular region, but also how those patterns may have changed over time. It is also important to know when the practice of patronymics began and ended within a particular area, and where the practice continues. In addition to the practice of patronymics is the issue of spelling and names being shortened or changed, intentionally or arbitrarily, as with immigrants passing through Ellis Island. Being aware of ancestral name variations and the many reasons those variations may occur is an asset for researchers.

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