The Genealogy Journey

The newbie genealogist's resource for books, mags, databases, and -- of course -- any free research stuff to be found on the Internet.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Onomastics (What Does Your Last Name Mean?)

My husband and I first met at a college party my roommates and I threw. But we didn’t get to know each other until we were set up. On our first date, I didn’t believe (or didn’t want to believe) that my husband’s last name was really “Stiff.” To prove it, he pulled out his driver’s license it. I clearly remember examining the bold “STIFF” letters and thinking, “I feel sorry for whoever marries this guy.”

Yep, the joke’s on me.

I’ve been married for over a dozen years now and I’ve long gotten over the strange looks and stifled smiles that emerge when I give my last name. In fact, several years ago I asked Todd’s father where the name Stiff comes from. He didn’t know, so I did a quick Internet search to find out. It’s an English name. (I’d always thought it was German, perhaps shortened from something more difficult to pronounce.) And recently, thanks to information from one of Todd’s family members, I found out that Todd’s ancestor, George Stiff, emigrated from Gloucester, England, in 1855.

One way to dip your toe into genealogy is to research the onomastics of your last name. Onomastics is “the study of the origin, form, meaning, and use of names, especially proper names.” (source: Websters New World Dictionary) As you can see from the previous paragraph, just knowing where your last name originated can point you in the right research direction.

It can also give you some enlightenment about the society and culture of the past. This is what I found on the Internet about the name Stiff:

English: nickname from Middle English stif ‘rigid’, ‘inflexible’, hence a nickname for someone who had difficulty in bending. The term was also used in a transferred sense of character (generally in the approving sense ‘resolute’, ‘steadfast’) from the 12th century, and this use may lie behind many examples of the surname.
(source: Dictionary of American Family Names, Oxford University Press)

I found this information on the site (select the Learning Center link at the top, follow the Family Facts link, and under the Facts menu, select “Name Meanings.”)

So, there you go! A long time ago, the name Stiff meant something positive and respected. I should print this on a business card and hand it out to anyone else who smirks at the Stiff name.

~Mary Kaye


At 6:06 PM, Blogger Nell 'n Kyle said...


There is another theory of the origin of the Stiff surname in Glocestershire England.

On the Origin of the Surname of Stiff by W.P.W. Phillimore

I can send you a scanned copy if you would like to read it.

Kyle Stiff (


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