A general observation about surnames from John Grenham

We genealogy types often follow websites or read blogs published by other genealogists, and I am no exception. While visiting John Grenham’s Irish Roots blog, I came across this bit of wisdom from his pen:

“[T]he most important fact about all surnames is that they are words. They don’t have DNA, go to any particular church, salute flags, vote or fight. They simply swim in the ever-changing sea of language, evolving as all languages do under the pressure of accents, education, fashion, politics, economics.”

This cogent comment was written in context of a recent blog post concerning the evolution of Irish surnames, but it applies generally as well. We family historians would do well to remember these wise words as we travel back in time through  eras that had such an impact on surnames as to change their spelling or their effects on hearers in the above contexts.

Perhaps an example relating to the Palcic surname might be relevant here too, that is, there are Palcics living all over southeastern Europe (by which I mainly refer to the nations that were formerly part of Yugoslavia) as well as in other parts of the continent. The Palcics living in Slovenia and Croatia are most likely Roman Catholic, the Serbian Palcic families are most likely Serbian Orthodox, and there are probably Bosnian Palcics who are Muslim. Any of these could have been on opposite sides of the wars that have occurred in the region down through the centuries.

The militaristic nationalism and compulsory military service required for men of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a major reason many of our Palcic ancestors left Europe for the US, Canada, the UK, and Ireland. Others left for Australia later as refugees or survivors of WWII.

Does this matter? Is it relevant to the family historian? Yes, in terms of historical context and records.  A surname’s  connotation can change in context of any of the factors he mentions, and surnames do have meaning, but we should not get them too tightly knotted with those aspects of life when undertaking a one-name study or family research in general.

This is, of course, just my opinion, but I think Mr. Grenham’s words are worth sharing.


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