“MAC” OR “MICK” – WHAT’S IN A SURNAME? (April 3/98)

“Are you a Mac or a Mc?” a friend asked an acquaintance when I introduced them recently; he explained unnecessarily that “Mac” meant his surname was of Scottish origin, while “Mc” (he pronounced it “Mick”) was Irish.

We’ve all heard this nonsense before about “Mac” and “Mc” being Scottish and Irish and it isn’t 100 percent true. My acquaintance pointed out, for example, that he was a “Mac” but he traced his Irish ancestry back at least 12 generations. As far as he could tell, he said, his ancestors were of good Irish stock “and always had been no matter how we spell our name.”

If I threw the surname “Svensen” at you and asked its origin, you’d probably say Swedish or perhaps Norwegian. However, I once met a Newfoundlander named Shaun Svensen who swore that his great grandfather came from Cork and he had a genealogy going back to 10th century Ireland. George had that wonderful Newfoundland Irish accent and the whimsical Irish sense of humor; despite his name, he was more Irish than some of the natives I met when touring Ireland a few years ago.

The study of surnames and their origin, whether Irish, Scottish or otherwise, is a fascinating pastime. While they can be misleading, as in the case of Shaun Svensen, surnames often indicate racial origin and in some cases pinpoint our ancestor’s occupation and the area in which they once lived.

I find it strange that like some once common words, surnames will sometimes fall out of usage. Old time accounts – journals, diaries, histories, etc. – often mention family names that have either totally disappeared or are uncommon today.

The explanation for some disappearing surnames can be found in the obituaries. Occasionally the obituary of a departed soul explains that he or she was the last “immediate member” of the family. On his or her death, in other words, there were no related survivors carrying on with the family name.

Attrition certainly explains why some surnames vanish. And people have been known to stop using surnames that have racial, religious and demeaning connotations. A book I read recently about Irish immigrants in Canada and the United States noted that some families changed their names after they arrived so they wouldn’t be mistaken for “the poor trash from across the water.”

Recently I was reading Hutchinson’s Nova Scotia Directory for 1864-65 and I discovered a number of surnames that seem to have disappeared – or at least are so uncommon that I’m not familiar with them. Names such as Sofield and Outher, for example, are found in the Kings County section; as is Neiley, which today is more common as Neily or Neilly. Are members of the Moune family, who farmed in Kings County in the mid-19th century, still found here? Where are the descendants of James and David Whelply, 19th century coopers?

Hants County had its share of uncommon surnames in the 19th century as well – Hanel, Coalfleet, Redon, Sherar, Drillio, Hilsher, Kissock and Beaddo, for example. Some of the surnames once common in the Valley may have disappeared because people changed the spelling. Redon may have been a misspelling of Redden, for example. Other once common Kings and Hants County names that may have had their spelling changed (or corrected) are Hanes, Bordon, Lutes, Read, Legg, Goold and Kinnie. Could these surnames be the older version of Haines, Borden, Lutz, Reid, Legge, Gould and Kennie or Kenny?

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