Family Names – IELTS Academic Reading Passage

Any specific study of words and language almost invariably has an obscure name, and that includes the study of people’s names themselves. This science is called anthroponomastics (anthropos being man, and onoma being name) but do not expect that word to be useful in your life. Yet all people possess names, and most possess several. With respect to the apparently random family name, if one traces back far enough in time, there is inevitably a formative logic that warrants some reflection. After all, that is the name people will carry their whole lives (name changes aside), and pass on to their descendants.

Considering early Britain, populations at that time lived in small farming hamlets, where they generally stayed their whole lives, and people had one name only. Being the only person named ‘John’ in the village allowed that single name to sufficiently distinguish that person from all others. If another John did exist, one could simply add some description to the name: ‘John the carpenter’ versus ‘John near the hill’, and a third could be ‘John, Peter’s son’. Such additions were mostly short-lived and not passed down to descendants. But of course, life was not destined to remain that simple.

With townships increasing in population, people becoming more mobile, and invading armies flowing to and fro, complications set in. In England, the process of adopting family names (or ‘surnames’ or ‘second names’) did not happen suddenly, but if one had to pick a fixed date, 1379 would be a good start. This was when the government introduced a poll tax, the administration of which required a list of the names of every adult in the kingdom. Suddenly, there were too many Johns to deal with. To resolve this issue, the later Additions Statute (1413) insisted that all names also come with the bearers’ occupation and place of residence. With such increasing bureaucracy, fixed and heritable family names would eventually become a necessity.

There were many methods by which these names were decided. The most obvious was to use that place of residence, although this method did come with the obvious problem that all residents of, say, Wickham, could not take the family name ‘Wickham’ without causing obvious confusion. Still, jumping to Italy, this did not prevent Leonardo da Vinci (from Vinci) becoming the town’s most famous export. Moving back to England, family names could also derive from personal beliefs (resulting in Mope, Christian, Godley, and others) or physical attributes, giving us Armstrong, Short, Brown, and others. Such names are often disguised by their original Gaelic derivation. Guilfoyle means ‘follower of (Saint) Paul’; Kennedy means ‘ugly head’.

Quite common also was to be named from the trade or profession carried out, resulting in names such as Smith, Butcher, and Carpenter. Many of these refer to professions long made redundant, such as Fletcher (arrow maker), Cooper (barrel maker), or Heyward (fence maintainer). Also common was to be named from geographic features, often ones near where the name-bearer lived. And so there is Hill, Bush, Underwood (‘under the wood’), Eastlake, Bridges, and many others. Finally, names often showed the relationships among families, where ‘son of Peter’ became ‘Peter’s son’, in turn becoming ‘Peterson’. Similarly, there is Johnson, Harrison, and Robertson. In Scots, ‘Mac’ was used, giving MacDonald, MacPherson, and others.

With the mixing of populations from different countries (especially in America), the original foreign names often suffered. This was either due to mispronunciation, which saw names such as Pfoersching become Pershing, or deliberate modifications to accommodate English pronunciation and spelling. Thus, Krankheit became Cronkite, and Wistinghausen became Westinghouse. Yet even the most English of family names is often historically knocked around a fair bit in terms of spelling and pronunciation before settling into its final form. Old English spellings, for example, were often lost in favour of phonetic intelligibility, making the determination of exact meaning difficult. .

All this study of family names might lead one to believe that using them is universal. Far from it, and the technical word for a single name only is a mononym. Parts of Africa, India, Central Asia, and Indonesia, as well as many indigenous or aboriginal groups use single names only. In the developed world, such names are usually stage names, reserved for celebrities, artists, singers, or film stars. The entertainment industry in Japan is replete with examples: Mana, Ayaka, and Ichiro, while Korea, China, and Hong Kong, have followed suit. Moving to the West, some will invent names (Bono, Sting, Prince), or just use family names (Liberace, Morrisey), or their first names (Shakira, Cher). Contrasting this, the musician Bjork uses a mononym in accordance with her own culture. As with all Icelanders, she has no family name.

A final point of interest is that in European and Western cultures, the family name is usually given after the first name (in both speaking and writing) — hence the terms ‘first’ and ‘last’ name. Contrasting this, in Asian cultures it is the other way round, reflecting the greater emphasis placed on family relationships. Since many of these cultures have vertical writing, what to the West is a ‘last name’ is in the East, an ‘upper name’.

Questions 1-4
Answer the questions. Choose NO MORE THAN TWO WORDS from the passage for each answer.

1. What aspect of family names should make us think more about them?
2. Originally, what was needed to distinguish two same first names?
3. What legislation began the process of using family names?
4. What made family names, in time, necessary?

Questions 5-9
Write the correct letter, A—F, next to the questions.

What system was used for the formation of the following names?

A Personal belief
B Place of residence
C Mistake
D Mononym
E Profession
F Geographic feature

5. Bono
6. da Vinci
7. Pershing
8. Heyward
9. Guilfoyle

Questions 10-13
Complete the sentences. Choose NO MORE THAN TWO WORDS from the passage for each answer.

‘Mac’ in Scottish means (10)……………………..

In order to be easier to write, foreign names often had (11)…………………….

Spelling changes in names can make it hard to know their (12)………………..

The term ‘upper name’ is used because of Asia’s (13)………………….