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Elsdon Smith begins this work with a discussion of the development of hereditary surnames and then he divides his subject into six broad categories: Classification of Surnames, Surnames from Father's Name (patronymics), Surnames from Occupation or Office, Surnames from Description or Action (nicknames), Surnames from Places, and Surnames Not Properly Included Elsewhere.
In these areas he expounds on such subjects as abbreviated names, surnames derived from animals, changes of names by immigrants, ethnic names, names indicating nationality, surnames from place names, European names, Asian names, names of Blacks and Indians, surnames without vowels, surnames from Christian names, landscape names, Jewish names, surnames from history, garbled names, comic or odd names, and hyphenated names. The list is almost endless and Mr. Smith is unstinting in his explanation of the roots and meaning of these names. In addition, he provides a list of the 2,000 most common surnames in the United States today, ranked in order of frequency with an estimate of the number of persons bearing each name.
"The book by Mr. Smith is the best work available on surnames borne by American families."--THE AMERICAN GENEALOGIST, Vol. 62, No. 1.
"...we believe Mr. Smith has presented us with a very good work on the origins of American surnames. His Bibliography on pp. 327-329 shows that he has consulted the best works in English, French, German, even one in Romanian..."--NATIONAL GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY, Vol. 74, No. 4.
"[Smith's] easy style holds the reader's interest..."--ANTIQUE WEEK, Vol. 19, No. 5.