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At https://genealogy.meta.stackexchange.com/a/1421/104 we concluded that questions about surname origins and meaning were on-topic but of little value. They are also usually answered by a simple Google search. (Other search engines exist).

We've had a few questions falling into this category so far, which have met a mixed reaction:

What is the meaning and origin of the surname Lambert? (Votes: -3)

What is the origin of the surname 'Dubé'? (Votes: 3)

What is the root meaning of the surname "Samovojska"? (Votes: 5)

What is the meaning and origin of the German last name Naicker? (Votes: 3)

Are we still happy that these are on-topic but not exactly desirable?

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One-name studies exist to attempt to determine a surname's origins, and I suspect that even these rarely find anything concrete. Even reputable sources such as the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names may not be correct in all cases. For example, my ONS surname has an entry in the latest edition of this book, but for a number of reasons the proposed origin is not consistent with the findings of my ONS. As has been previously noted by others, this makes providing a useful and accurate answer to such questions extremely difficult.

That being said, I struggle to say that these questions are off-topic. Certainly one goal of researching my family history was to determine my surname's origins, and I have been partially successful.

I think moderators jumping in to act on these questions – whether via closure or excessive editing – may be counterproductive. Unless there is a glaring reason for immediate action, I suggest we leave surname origin questions at the mercy of moderation by the community. Users should simply downvote and vote to close surname origin questions that are too broad, poorly researched or show no effort (as they should do with any other question that meets these criteria).

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To be on-topic I think such questions should always start by saying why a general reference search might not be providing a satisfactory answer for a particular, and thus potentially interesting, surname.

In addition, I think we should consider writing an FAQ about why we consider questions about surname origins and meanings to be of little value. The answer to that could be that, even if you find a website that says the origin of surname X is in country/area Y and the surname appears to be ancient in that country/area, it is always possible that your ancestors came to have the same surname via a different origin.

I think we should encourage the asker to research their own ancestors to determine where they came from. If, after tracing many generations, the country/area of origin for their ancestors seems to match what the "surname website" said, then saying that is where their surname came from will be on a firmer footing.

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Re: the earlier answer where PolyGeo writes:

To be on-topic I think such questions should always start by saying why a general reference search might not be providing a satisfactory answer for a particular, and thus potentially interesting, surname.

I agree with this. I think another place many of the questions fall down is that the surname origin search does not seem to be part of a workable problem. They fail the criteria in What types of questions should I avoid asking?:

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page.

(emphasis mine)

Another shortcoming is that the questions lack context, which can make them run afoul of this caution (also from dont-ask):

Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.

Maybe my imagination is more robust than other people, but for a common, widely-used surname, there could easily be an entire book on a surname's origin(s) if the author was thorough and cited everything properly.

Ideally, surname origin questions should have some kind of relation to how the information will be used to solve a specific problem in genealogy.

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Given the easy availability of web sites that purport to provide definitive answers to these questions, I believe that they fall into the category of "general reference" that get booted immediately from SE areas such as English Language and Usage.

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