O' & Mc/Mac in family names

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by deslenguada, Dec 21, 2006.

  1. deslenguada

    deslenguada Senior Member

    Where does the Irish "O'" come from? What does it mean?
    Where does the Scottiish "Mc/Mac" come from? What does it mean?

    What do they stand for?

    Thank you.
  2. difficult cuss Senior Member

    English England
    Of, refering to location, or (I think more usually) to the male parentage.
    MacDonald (of Donald) like the following
    English....Smithson (son of Smith)or
    Scandinavian...Johanssen (son of Johan) or
    Icelandic... Gotmunsdottir (daughter of Gotmund).
  3. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    The Irish O' means descendant of ...
    Mac is similar.

    Etymologically, O' is grandson of, or generally descendant; Mac is son of, or generally ...
  4. Tabac Senior Member

    Pacific Northwest (USA)
    U. S. - English
    Arabic: bin, ben
    Turkish: oğlu (attached to the end of the name)
  5. winklepicker

    winklepicker Senior Member

    English (UK)
    Oh goodee - Celtic. Here's a very brief outline.

    Celtic split into two forms a while back: 'p' Celtic (Goidelic) and 'q' Celtic (Brythonic). You can observe this difference in Scots and Welsh. 'Son of' in Scots Gaelic is 'Mac' - the 'c' in Mac being the equivalent of the q form. Whereas in Welsh it is 'ap' (the 'p' form). So:

    Robinson - English, son of Robin
    McTavish - Scots, son of Tavish
    ap Rhys - Welsh, son of Rhys

    The Irish went off on their own with the O'Malley thing...

    I think this is fascinating. If you do too, go here: Wikipedia info
  6. deslenguada

    deslenguada Senior Member


    Thank you.
    I do really find it fascinating, the "son/daughter of" thing seems to happen in all the cultures and languages no matter which ones. ;) Any theory?
  7. Hashishin New Member

    Well I know for a fact that the reason why there are "sen"s at the end of Scandanavian names is because they didn't have a written language for a long time. To keep their family history they used "saga"s which were orally transmitted stories of lineage and history in general.

    If your listing down your lineage its much easier to remember if every link encompases half of the eariler one. For example:

    Eric the Red, what was his son's name again? It must be ___ Ericsen, oh yeah Lief Ericsen.

    This was probably the same all over the world, it was just forgotten almost everywhere else because most places that didn't have a written language probably got dominated and their history either supressed or forgotten over the ages. Not to mention that as soon as written langauge appears this whole naming scheme almost immediately becomes obsolete. Why say Leif Ericson of the house/clan "so and so" when you could just say Lief of the house/clan "so and so", and eventually just Lief "so and so".

    Scandanavia was the last bit of Europe to not have written language so we still get to see the ancient oral traditions.
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2011
  8. Sedulia

    Sedulia Senior Member

    Paris, France
    **Literate** American English
    Panjandrum is right that O means Grandson of... and Mac means Son of... (and Ni means Daughter of). The Scottish Mc is exactly the same as the Irish Mac, as the Irish and Scottish Gaelic languages are fundamentally the same. ("Scota" meant Ireland and "Scotus" (in Latin) used to mean Irish until the Middle Ages. A lot of northern Irish people moved to Scotland long ago and gave their name to the country.)
  9. Einstein

    Einstein Senior Member

    Milano, Italia
    UK, English
    I was told by an Irish colleague that the O' was originally written Ó, but English printing presses didn't consider accents.
  10. elirlandes

    elirlandes Senior Member

    Dublin & Málaga
    Ireland English
    Ó is the Irish word for "from" or "out of". As such, you would use it if you are of the lineage of a well known person. Note that "ó" becomes "uí" (or archaicly "ua") when used in the genitive case. And so you would say "Eoghan Uí Néill" for "John who is of the lineage of Niall". (Niall of the Nine Hostages, an early High King of Ireland).

    Irish names have been Anglicised. That is to say, the original Irish versions changed at the time when the British ruled Ireland, and were written as for pronounciation by an English speaker (transliterated). As such "Uí Néill" became written "O'Neill" in English. There are no accents in English, so the accent on the "O" is lost although the convention in English is to use an apostrophe to show that the "O" is seperate from the rest of the name (it is in fact a separate word in the original Irish). People of these names who use the Irish version still spell them "Uí" or "Ó" depending on the context.

    "Mac" is the Irish language word for "son". Again, the same process of transliteration into English happened with these names. This is both an Irish and a Scottish phenomenon; remember that from the 6th century until the foundation of the Kingdom of Scotland in the middle of the 9th century, Ireland and Scotland were part of one single Gaelic/Celtic geo-political area with tribal local kingdoms based on Clan (the Irish word for Family being "clann"). My own surname is a "Mc" name which dates back to the "Dál Riata", a small kingdom which spanned a corner of North Eastern Ireland and the western isles and highlands of Scotland.

    So when a dark haired foreigner (dubh gall) had a son, he would be known as the son of the dark haired foreigner (Mac Dubhgall) which anglicises as "McDougall". McDonald comes from "Mac Domhnaill", son of Donal etc etc etc.

    When the English anglicised these names, the "a" was often omitted and the "c" written in superscript (to denote the abreviation, in the same way "Mª" is used for María in Spanish). Also, the patronimic name eventually stuck as a permenant surname.

    Irish speakers (and some English speaking Irish people who wish to put their names back into Irish after a few generations of anglicisation under British rule) still use "Mac XXX" as the format [or "Ní" or "Nic" if they are female - which comes from the word "ionn" meaning "daughter of"].

    To give you an example of how names changed as a result of English influence (i.e. the illegality of education in the Irish language under British law, and the recording and registering of Irish names by English officials leading to anglicisation) take the name Taggart.

    "Taggart" comes from the anglicisation "McTaggart" which comes from the Gaelic "Mac an tSaggart" which means "Son of the Priest".
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2011
  11. CapnPrep Senior Member

    The preposition ó may be used in some surnames (I don't know), but the O' found in familiar patronymics like O'Brien, O'Connell, etc. comes from the noun ó meaning "grandson, descendant", as panjandrum and Sedulia said above. It can't be the preposition ó in these cases because the noun is not lenited, and is in the genitive case: Ó Briain, Ó Conaill. ("From Brian, from Connell" would be ó Bhrian, ó Chonall.) Also, h is added before a vowel (e.g. Ó hUiginn "O'Higgins"), and the preposition ó doesn't do that.

    The fact that Ó becomes when the whole name is put into the genitive also shows that we are dealing with the noun ó (because prepositions don't have case forms).
  12. elirlandes

    elirlandes Senior Member

    Dublin & Málaga
    Ireland English
    Unfortunately I cannot enter my earlier post to edit and correct based on your (useful) post. Indeed, I had never stopped to think as to whether the change in the name form was a lenition or genitive, but rather just notice the change naturally - also, I speak Irish only as a second language.
    I must say though, I have never come across "ó" as meaning either descendent or grandson ("sliocht" & "garmhac" respectively to me) so I am guessing it is archaic. I suppose it likely that it is related to the preposition "from"...
  13. CapnPrep Senior Member

    Etymologists do not consider these two words to be related. On the other hand, etymologically unrelated but formally similar words can become strongly linked in the minds of speakers of the language, and such associations often influence the subsequent development of one or both words.

    The evolution of the noun was áue > oa/ua > ó and goes back to the IE root au̯o-s meaning "maternal grandfather" (according to Pokorny). The preposition was au > úa > ó and goes back to the root apo-, like Latin ab "from".
  14. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    This is very unaccurate and misleading. The Scandinavians used runic alphabet from about year 1000, and Latin records since about 1100. Gradually, the use of own languages in Latin alphabet increased, and in the XIII century there was an extensive use of written language. Was it that you call "not having a written language for a long time"?
    Surnames ending in -sen (Denmark/Norway) and -son (Sweden) er developed from patronymics, which were still in wide use until the end of the XIX century, when it was made obligatory for everybody to have a surname.

    Leif Eriksson was the name (at that time only the ending -son was used)

    Where did you find such information? It is positively wrong.
    In Denmark/Norway schools were made obligatory for everybody in the XVIII century.

    Besides, use of patronymics has nothing to do with oral tradition.
  15. Frank78

    Frank78 Senior Member

    Didn't use the Goths the runic alphabet much earlier? Around 200 AD, I think.

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