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Origins of Family Names 

"What's in a name." to quote Shakespeare. The study of family names can give insight into family heritage and history. Surnames were not common in Europe earlier than 1000 A.D. People were identified by what we now call nicknames. These nicknames identified the person to the satisfaction of the people who knew him locally. A man named John with a white beard or hair might be called John le White. John's son would be called just that, "John's son." If his name were David then his son might be called David's son or Davidson.

The Norman's carried the practice of retaining a family name to England at the time of the Norman conquest in 1066. The practice grew slowly; however, and really did not become common practice until required by more extensive government records. Family names most commonly derive from four sources:

First is Patronymics or derivation from the fathers name, such as McJunkin and McClanahan, or O'Carney. The Mac and O' prefixes are used in Scotland and Ireland to mean "son of" and "grandson of" or "descendent of."
The Welch used "ap" so that a name such as "ap Harry" meaning "son of Harry" might eventually become "Parry." Endings such as "er", "y", "ey", "ie", or "ley" were diminutives meaning "little" so a son might be called "Bailey" or "Crumley" or "Gregory." Eventually the "son" suffix became simply "s" in some cases such as Stephens.

A second major source are names derived from occupation or office. For example, Wheeler for a man who made wheels. A Lentz meant a peasant-soldier or "lance man," "Smith" from a blacksmith.

A third source of family names was from places. A cairn is a "pile of stones" so Carney--"One who lives near a mountain of stone." Briggs is a corruption of Bridge for someone who lived near a bridge. Ledford from a path leading across a stream. Cheyne, Duchesne, MacChesney and eventually Chesney come from the Norman-French for an Oak Grove or a series of French towns with these names. They would have come to mean "strong as an oak" or "stout of heart."

A fourth source is from description or action. John the Wyte became John White. Brown might be for brown or dark red hair. Black might derive from dark hair or swarthy complexion. Someone addicted to the oath "by God" in English" or "per Due" in French became Bigott, Pardew, Perdue, Purdue and Purdy in England.

Kinser or Küntzer are names from the Palatine states or what is now Southern Germany and the first syllable, 'Kien,' in old German, means a pine or Scotch fir tree that burns very well because of its' high resin content. Before the invention of electricity pine torches were used for light. A reasonable assumption would be that the name Kinzer or Küntzer would mean one who makes or sells pine torches. i. e. torch maker or torchbearer.

Occasionally the name MacKinser has appeared in research materials. There seemed to be no explanation for a name of German origin having a Scottish suffix until one Kinser cousin told us his family had moved first to one of the Scottish channel islands for a number of years before immigrating to the American Colonies. Perhaps they adopted the Scottish custom of adding the Mac meaning 'son of' to the child's name.

There are many names we cannot fit into any of these categories. Perhaps because we cannot follow the development of the name from its original meaning. Names also changed with locations as people moved. In some countries, particularly in Scandinavia, each farm had a name that the residents adopted so that a man moving from one to another would change his surname to fit the farm where he currently lived.

The lack of education among the common people also led to a wide variety of spellings of names. Officials wrote the name as they heard it on various documents, each one spelling the name as he interpreted it. In tracing family trees we find that most family names stemming from common ancestry are spelled in several different ways. In one instance the name Kinser is spelled three different ways on immigration documents filled out by different officials at the Port of Philadelphia on the same day for the same person.

Many people on immigrating to a new country changed their names to fit new circumstances. For example, many dropped the "Mac" or "O'" before their names on entry into the American colonies. Some simply changed to English words meaning the same as their name did in the old country. White for Blanc or Brown for Brun or Broun, for example. Of course others changed names to leave behind an unsavory past or to avoid being found in their new country. Some simply adopted names they liked. Others adopted English sounding names to avoid ethnic discrimination.

All in all coming to a new land offered a chance for a new beginning in many ways and many immigrants felt a change of name would improve opportunities in their new home.

Early German names may be confusing to researchers. Some common variations of names and their English equivalents are given on this page. German name variations

Origin of the Kinser Name.

   Mrs. Opal Kinser Risinger(9589) did extensive research on her branch of the Kinser clan and wrote a book on them. In a letter to Opal in 1963 Mrs. Adolf Kinzer of Heidelberg, Germany gives the following derivation of the Kinser name. Kinzer or Kienzer are names from southern Germany and the first syllable, 'Kien,' in old German, means a pine or Scotch fir tree that burns very well because of its' high resin content. Before the invention of electricity pine torches were used for light. A reasonable assumption would be that the name Kinzer or Kintzer would mean one who makes or sells pine torches.

In her letter Mrs. Adolf Kinser adds there are Kinzers, related to her, living in Germany, France and Switzerland. She states that her husband's family originally lived in Thueringen but were driven away from their hereditary home during the Thirty Years War(1618-1648).

Adolf Kinzer's great-grandfather was born September 9, 1795, in Namborn, Saar. Namborn is located just south of Wolfersweiler where our Kinser ancestors came from. He married a Marg. Bugard and after her death married her sister, Maria Bugard. Their fifth son, Johann, born in 1830, was Adolf's great-grandfather. This son emigrated to Anneville, France. Constant wars between France and Germany split the family and resulted in Kinzers fighting on both sides in the World War II.

Mrs. Risinger's family tree is descended from a Michael Kinser(3075) born in Wythe County, Virginia on January 20, 1803, and living near St. Paul's Lutheran Church. This Michael is descended from the Johan Jacob Küntzer who arrived aboard the 'Samuel' and is a cousin or brother to the Kinser from whom the Tennessee branch of the family descends. Michael and his children migrated to Indiana at about the same time our family line moved to East Tennessee.

Andreas Küntzer from Germany (also a 'Kinser cousin') gives another possible interpretation of the origin of the name Kinser or Küntzer, the original spelling. He says "Küntzer is another form of Kunz. Kunz on the other hand is the pet name of Konrad. This surname developed from the equally sounding German name. Konrad was in the Middle Ages one of the most popular German names. Do you know the German words "Hinz und Kunz"?? It's from the Middle Age too and means "everyone"." My mothers family name was Hinze. Isn't that funny ?? He also mentions that the 'ue' in Kuentzer is equal to the 'ü' in Küntzer. The two are equivalent in German usage. Andreas has a family web page at with his family genealogy. His family is linked to us on the family tree and the alphabetical indexes.

An interesting study would be the how and why of the concentrations of the various spellings of the Kinser name. Most of the East Tennessee Kinsers use that spelling while Kincer seems to be concentrated in Virginia. Kinzer is more common in Middle Tennessee and the Mid-West. The older spellings such as Kintzer and Küntzer seem to have remained in the Pennsylvania area. Some other spellings such as Kinsor and Kinsar are relatively uncommon.

One or two researchers have tried to identify Kinder as a variation of the Kinser name but I do not believe this to be true. In every instance where I have encountered the Kinder name it is a separate and distinct family. Kinder also occurs in German records meaning "child of."