July 2nd, 2012

Wondering About a One Name Study?

When I first began genealogical research I came across what was referred to as a “One Name Study.” (ONS) As a beginner I had no idea what it was or the potential value it could have to my own research. After looking into the subject I realized that it was both an interesting undertaking and a very valuable genealogy tool and resource. Though not for everyone, there are aspects of a one name study that can be of value to those tracing their family tree. Generally speaking, it is a full time endeavour, perhaps in some ways a bit more involved than compiling a family pedigree. It is well worth discussing however, and so I thought I would provide a brief summary of what a one name study is, what is involved in its pursuit, and how it can help family historians.

A one name study is actually a very unique genealogy project in that it is dedicated to researching all occurrences of a specific surname rather than a person’s lineage or pedigree. There may be variations to a ONS (one name study); some concentrate on the occurrences of a surname in a specific geographical area, while others focus on a complete worldwide analysis – a true one name study.

The ONS may concentrate on certain aspects such as the geographical distribution of the name and how the name has changed over the years (spelling variations), or it might attempt to reconstruct the genealogical lineage of the name – basically a pedigree chart showing the connections between all families bearing that name; denoting families rather than individuals. A common goal is to pinpoint a precise geographical origin of a name, especially if the surname looks to have been named after a place; such as Washington. Many names take their origin from an occupation or trade like Carpenter.

A one name study seeks to collect more than just data, but rather to determine the genealogy and family history of all people with that surname and its variants i.e. Smith, Smyth, and Smythe etc. To accomplish this, the following must be determined:

  • The Origin of the Name
  • The Meaning of the Name
  • Frequency of Occurrence
  • Geographical Distribution of the Name
  • Immigration and Emigration Patterns
  • Variants of the Name
  • Distribution of the Name throughout History

Assembling all of the people of that surname into a massive pedigree chart is not required of a ONS however, though some researchers do this with names that are relatively rare. This would be a huge undertaking, but many “one-namers do construct pedigree charts for their own branch of that name. The particular benefit of a one name study is that it can eliminate alternative spellings and such when tracing your own family history, and consulting one can be of great benefit to genealogical researchers.

There is also a good chance of discovering new relatives when undertaking a one name study, but it should always be kept in mind that any information you uncover should be treated with due care and diligence; respecting people’s privacy for both legal and ethical reasons. Let’s take a look at the main component of one name studies – surnames.

Surname Analysis and a One Name Study

The more rare a surname is the easier it is to research, but don’t be put off if you have a fairly common surname, as much research may have already been accomplished regarding it. The beauty of a surname is that each has its own story to tell, and as such, a one name study can be both a rewarding and entertaining endeavour. There are basically eight main classifications of surnames, they are:

  • Locative – Derived from the name of a place (Toponymic), or derived from a specific geographical feature of a location such as Hill (Topographic).
  • Occupational – Derived from the occupation of the bearer (Butcher, Carpenter, Blacksmith).
  • Position Holder – Taken from a political or community position that the bearer had (Judge, Mayor).
  • Patronymic – Derived from the forename of the Father (Dennis, Patrick, Williams)
  • Matronymic (rare) – Derived from Mother’s first name (Margetson, Beaton)
  • Diminutive – Derived from an altered forename. This was common in the Middle Ages when suffixes such as – lett, cock and kin were added to a first name (Bartlett, Tomkins, Hancock).
  • Genetive – A name implying ownership by someone, usually the owners name with an “s” added (Martins, Manners, James)
  • Nicknames – Sometimes derived from physical appearance or other characteristic (Fox, Cruickshank, Cripple)

Some surnames may have multiple origins, and therefore may have multiple meanings. Performing a one name study can take you on a wonderful ride through history and introduce you to aspects of your family you might not otherwise know. In subsequent blogs I’ll introduce you to additional aspects and benefits of a ONS, and how to go about beginning one should you be interested.