What's In A Name?

Origins Of The Brownell Name

When you begin your search for where you came from you start with the obvious-your name. Your name is one of your most personal possessions. It defines to the world who you are. Psychologists point out that a name can predispose others to like or dislike us. Even today some primitive tribes keep their names secret to prevent enemies from acquiring power over them. In terms of history, your name is a fingerprint, perhaps the first clue as to who you are and even what your personality is.

First names are called "given" or "Christian" names, after early Christians who converted their pagan first names to Christian ones after baptism. The origin of most first names in is the Bible. In 325 A.D. the Church outlawed the use of pagan names like Marcus or Diana, which referred to pagan gods. Much later, in 1545, the use of a saint's name was made mandatory for Catholic baptism.

In the 1600's Protestants, rejecting anything Catholic, turned from the saint names of the New Testament to Old Testament names, such as Elijah, Joshua, Patience, Priscilla, Rejoice, Truth-even He-Soundeth-the-Trumpets-for-Jehovah (imagine having to go through school with that name).

Middle names, usually a second "given" name, were first used as a status symbol by German nobility in the fifteenth century. They did not come into widespread use until several hundred years later, and were not common in the United States until after the Revolutionary War, when the fashion was to use the mother's maiden name as a middle name.

The first known people to acquire surnames or family names were the Chinese. The use of surnames there dates from 2852 B.C. when the Emperor Fushi decreed that all families choose a name from a sacred poem. In early times, the Romans had only one name. They later changed to using three names, but as the Roman Empire began to decline, family names became confused and single names once again became customary.

During the Middle Ages, people were referred to by a single given name. But gradually the custom of adding another name as a way to distinguish individuals gained popularity. By the 12th century the use of a second name had become so widespread that in some places it was considered vulgar not to have one. These second names, however, did not apply to families, nor were they hereditary.

The modern hereditary use of surnames is a practice that originated among the Venetian aristocracy in Italy about the 10th or 11th centuries. Crusaders returning from the Holy Land took note of this custom and soon spread its use throughout Europe. With the concurrent growth in population and commerce the need to distinguish individuals become more important-merchants needed to know which John owed them money.

William the Conqueror brought the custom of family names to England from Normandy in 1066. Surnames were first used by the nobility and wealthy landowners who derived their names from their estates. The practice then trickled down to the merchants and commoners. By about 1450 most people in England, regardless of social rank, had a fixed, hereditary surname. This surname identified the family, provided a link with the family's past and would preserve its identity in the future. The preservation of surnames became a matter of family pride. It was a cause for much regret if a man had no male descendants to whom he could pass on the surname he himself had inherited and had borne with pride.

Most surnames evolved from four general sources: occupation, location, father's name and characteristic. Many historians believe that surnames derived from places were the first to become hereditary. Surnames evolving from nicknames or descriptive traits are also of early origin. Surnames taken from occupations came later, and those taken from the father's name were the last to become hereditary.

There are several different theories as to the origin of the Brownell name. One source indicates that it is locational in origin, meaning "dweller near a brown spring; or at the brown slope or corner." According to a second source the name was given to its first bearer because of his brunette or brownish complexion and was probably first adopted as a surname by the sons of one so called. Both these sources claim the name to be English in origin. A third source, however, states that the name Brownell is French in origin and in English means "dweller at Brown Hill."

Many forms of the Brownell name are found in old English and early American records. Some of these are Brunell, Bruneall, Brounell, Brownelle, Brownel, Brownill, Braunell, Brawnel, Brownall, and Brownell. The last form mentioned is the one most accepted in America today.

It is estimated that there are 2,812 Brownell households in the United States, with a total population of 7,398. The total estimated number of Brownell households in Canada is 308, with a total population of 1,111. These figures include only those with the surname Brownell. If those who are related, but do not share the Brownell name, were included, the number would be many times higher.

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Copyright 1999 Bill Brownell

wbrownell@aol.com