Why “Mac” and “Mc” Surnames Often Contain a Second Capital Letter

David asks: Why is the second “C” capitalized in names like “MacCleod”?

scottishThe short story is that “Mc” and “Mac” are prefixes that mean “son of.” Early inconsistencies in records are what led to having both Mc and Mac prefixes. Mc is just an abbreviation of Mac, and both can actually be abbreviated further to the much less common M’.

As you might guess from this, the myth that a Mac name denotes Scottish heritage while a Mc name denotes Irish heritage is simply not true. Similarly, the assertion that Mac names are Protestant while Mc names are Catholic doesn’t have a shred of truth to it. They both just mean “son of” and can be used by anyone of either descent or religion.

Someone with the last name of MacDonald is sort of like someone with the last name of Johnson—likely, each had ancestors with the name of Donald or John. Back in the day, it was common to differentiate people with the same name by also calling them by the names of their fathers, which is how this sort of surname started to become popular.

You can probably see why Mc and Mac names typically contain a second capital letter. Since proper nouns are capitalized, you would write “son of Donald,” not “son of donald.” In the same way, you would usually write MacDonald rather than Macdonald, but there are obviously exceptions. Surnames have been around so long that sometimes they get changed, and in some families, the second capital letter was gotten rid of.

In addition, some Mc and Mac names don’t include the name of the father, but the father’s profession. Take someone named John Macmaster. In this case, John’s father was a master of some sort, therefore John is the “son of a master.” Master is not a proper noun and thus does not need to be capitalized.  This practice can be seen elsewhere—every Smith, Baker, and Cook likely had someone in that occupation somewhere in their ancestry.

Other Mc and Mac surnames come from some physical feature of the person, such as Macilbowie, which means “son of the blonde man,” while the more recognizable Mackenzie (ironically enough now a popular first name for girls) means “son of the fair one.” Again, every Brown, White, Green, Bruin, Weiss, LeBlanc, etc. can relate.

There was also a prefix for “daughter of” but these mostly fell out of favour years ago. The daughter prefix was Nc, short for the Gaelic “nighean mhic.” Surnames for women like NcDonald were fairly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, but after that time there were only a few secluded mentions of them.

To a lesser extent, “Vc” was used to denote “grandson of,” so that a person would have two surnames. Now you might have John MacDonald Vcmaster, but this tradition was never incredibly popular and is not as prevalent today.

These surnames have gone through a lot of changes over the years. Aside from Mac being shortened to Mc, in some cases the prefix was dropped altogether. This happened as Macs and Mcs immigrated to other countries and other parts of their names were changed to be more easily pronounced by the people there. For instance, in several cases MacDonald became Donaldson. However, it also occurred within Scotland itself. For instance, the name MacGregor was once banned, and the members of the MacGregor clan had to use different names. Eventually, the name was reinstated, but not everyone went back to using it

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Bonus Facts:

  • In England, surnames started becoming standardized—that is, John Peterson would have a son named William Peterson, rather than William Johnson—around the reign of King Henry V. He decreed that surnames needed to be recorded, and it was getting confusing to have the several generations of the same family all with different last names.
  • Today, the most common surnames in Scotland are Smith and Brown, with the first Mac name—MacDonald—coming in at #11. In Ireland, the most popular surnames are Murphy and Kelly, with McKenna coming in at #14.
  • Last names were developed to differentiate between people with the same name as the population grew and parents’ creativity only went so far. That’s why so many surnames are descriptive—they tell you either what occupation someone is in, who their parents were, where their home is, or what they look like. This is true in many different languages and societies across the globe.
  • Place surnames are some of the most common surnames, but they aren’t always as easy to figure out, unless your last name is something like London, Lake, or Newtown. That’s because some of the prefixes and suffixes attached to place names aren’t as well known today. For instance, “atte” meant “at the,” and has since been shortened to “at” in cases like Atwood or Atwater, which means the family likely lived near the woods or a river at some point. Some common suffixes are –ham, -stead, -stow, -ton, and –wick, which all mean something along the lines of “from the farm” or “from the town.” They might be paired with some old words for things that we no longer use, like “beck” for brook or “den” for valley. Combining a couple of those, you could get Beckham, which essentially means “from the farm with the brook running through it.”
  • Just as girls were given the Nc prefix now and then, girls were also given the surname “Johnsdaughter” in England. Obviously, this was not a lasting practice and is not nearly as popular as Johnson. Usually, the “daughter” portion was abbreviated to something like “daur” or “dr” to make it easier to spell and say.
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  • Roger

    Interesting article about Mc and Mac. What about the history behind O’ Myname.

  • James

    In a patriarchal system, where a wife usually takes the last name of the husband, it only stands to reason that Nc-, -daughter and -dotter would quickly vanish.

    In Russia, the patronym (-ovich, -yevich, -yich, or the female -yevna, -ovna or -ichna) is still used as a middle name. So Ivan Nikolayevich Andropov’s son Mikhail would be Mikhail Ivanovich Andropov. His daughter Olga would be Olga Ivanova Andropov. It is also standard in Russia to refer to a person formally and casually by their first name and patronym.

    In Iceland the use of a patronymic last name is cumpulsory.

  • Caille

    I read this and a few hours later ran into someone with the last name NcEwen. Crazy!

  • Ed38512

    Better not use the word Mac!

    Apple will sue you!

  • Eric McMaster

    As a McMaster I must disagree with the article. Master is capitalized in our surname!

    • Ross

      “You can probably see why Mc and Mac names typically contain a second capital letter. Since proper nouns are capitalized, you would write “son of Donald,” not “son of donald.” In the same way, you would usually write MacDonald rather than Macdonald, but there are obviously exceptions. Surnames have been around so long that sometimes they get changed, and in -some- families, the second capital letter was gotten rid of.”

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  • P Smith

    Mc and Mac are no different than Irish O’, Spanish de la, or German and Dutch van, der, and van der.

    The last “bonus” talks about the use of son and daughter in names, which is still common across Nordic countries (e.g. the singer Bjork Gudmundsdottir). Nordic countries still name children by their father’s name, they don’t have family names.

    Speaking of family names, many English names are derived from professions, e.g. John the Blacksmith became John Smith or John Black. That’s a story unto itself.

    • Guest

      German is von, Dutch is van

  • Nomnom

    Don’t forget, Mac and Mc can be further abbreviated to an M’.
    As someone with an apostrophe in place of a C, shit sucks.

  • Sven

    Elsewhere on this site we learned that a man is blond, but a woman is blonde, so where on earth did “son of the blonde man” come from?

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  • Jo

    As always very informative! Thanks…just curious any idea why MacGregor was banned? Thanks

    • Clay

      I don’t know why the MacGregor name was banned, but it’s true. My paternal grandmother was a McGrew, which was one of the substituted names for MacGregor, and I’ve heard that story all my life.

  • Jack McClintock

    The genealogy of my names says that McClintock means, “The son of the servant of Findan”. It goes on to explain that Findan was an evangelical who helped bring Christianity to the pagan savages of what became Scotland… Have you anything to add to this very interesting article on surnames?

  • Jack McClintock

    Many years ago I was told that, in England… after or during the era of colonizing Ireland, so many landless Irish expatriated to England/Wales that the English crown forced Irish living in the realm to adopt color names… Thus Red, Green, Black, White, Whitman, Blackman and so many other names derive from a policy intended to identify and segregate the Irish (Celts) from the native citizens of the realm. Can you (anyone) offer anything about this…?

    It was further said that the Nazis got their idea from naming Jews after valuable metals and gems from this ancient English police. Any comments? True? False?

  • Ron Woodman

    I’ve traced my ancestors on my mother’s side back to Scotland. I have a letter sent by a brother to the two McWhirter’s that came to Canada in the early 1800’s. Over time, some of the Mc’s were changed to Mac’s. Not only did the Mc get changed but also several renditions of McWhirter such as McKourter. This because people taking census’, ministers, and family members themselves couldn’t spell. So geneology is important. You never know. You might marry a close cousin.

  • Mac

    Great topic.
    Another variant would be with the “c” superscripted (smaller and elevated) with a line under to denote the shortening from Mac to Mc. It seems to function similarly to a macron but misplaced below the “c” vice the correct placement above the “c”. So still pronounced, just missing the “a”.

    This link does a good job of explaining I think: http://www.mcaninch.net/Surname/mcsurpg1.htm#surname3

    My name is spelled that way and I could never get a consensus answer from family members as to why it was spelled that way or why the difference from the Ellis Island records. I once was told that someone from the family was hanged for stealing a horse so some changed the spelling to distance themselves from the brigand as was custom in the Highlands.

    Then like Paul Harvey I got the rest of the story.
    Turns out another Scotsman with the exact same name as my Great Grandfather immigrated to the U.S. and lived in the same city about a few miles away. He was financially irresponsible (among other things) and my great grandfather was getting the heat; I.E. mail, threats of jail from debt collectors, etc). So Scotty did what any good clansmen would do. He found his moniker doppleganger gave him a thumping (it was 1890, so you know…) and summarily changed his name on all of his debts and records to preclude further issues.

  • John McGuinn

    The author claims that “Mc” is just an abbreviation of “Mac”. What a load of rubbish. “Mc” is not, and never has been, an abbreviation of “Mac”. The author forgets, or doesn’t realize, that the Scots and Irish spoke Gaelic, not English. They lived in isolated rural communities and were often illiterate. When the names were eventually transposed to English, the Gaelic pronunciation was sometimes written as “Mc” and sometimes as “Mac”.

  • Lewis Benzie

    You may want to mention why Smith & Brown become common surnames despite Smith & Brown not being Scottish names.

    Ethnic cleansing anyone?

  • McDaniel

    My surname is McDaniel. My 5th great grandfather had the surname McDonald when he emigrated to Pennsylvania from Scotland. However, when he moved to Kentucky, the county clerk recorded his name as McDaniel on the census and tax records. From what I’ve read, this was a common occurrence in the American south. Perhaps the English settlers had a hard time understanding the thick Scottish accent and heard “McDonald” as “McDaniel”.

    I’ve got a 3rd cousin whose surname is MacDaniel. His grandfather moved from Kentucky to Indiana and intentionally changed his name from “Mc” to “Mac” because he owned a grocery store and wanted his store to be the first to appear in the M section of the phonebook.

  • Iain Galbraith

    Mac is the Gaelic word for “son” not “son of” as is often quoted. The “of” in Gaelic changes the following word. E.g. Donald in English is Dòmhnaill in Gaelic, and Mac Dhòmhnaill is “Son of Donald”. The variants of anglicised Gaelic surnames might be because that’s how they were recorded by English speaking clerks. People often get a bee in their bonnet about how their Gaelic surname is spelt in English, but at the end of day, if you are a MacDonald, McDonald, Macdonald, MacDonnell or a McDonnell, you all share a common surname of MacDhòmhnaill.

    • Ewan Macintyre

      Well said! However, try telling that to 99% of Anglicized Scots who have never worked out why they are Anglicized.
      “Early Scots was the emerging literary language of the Northern Middle English speaking parts of Scotland in the period before 1450.” (Early Scots: Wikipedia).

  • Jeff

    Very interesting learning about Mc/Mac as well as surname info. Building on that, I’m curious about ‘O-, as in O’Brien, O’Reily, etc. Does that imply (Son) Of Brien or something like that?

    • Of course it does (O’Neil, O’Brian, O’Connor and O’Donnell), just like the Norman prefix Fitz as in Fitzwilliam and the Welsh ap as in Probert (ap Robert).

      For those taking Canadian history, the first Canadian prime minister was Sir John A. Macdonald without a capital D.

  • In Irish, for the female ni is used (pronounced nee), not the O (for the son).

    (Similarly, for one example, The Poles say last name Krasniewska for the female and Krasniewski for the males.) My name would be, Barbara ni Raghleigh not the more British-style spelling, O’Reilly.

    What the British never understood nor tried to learn about the Irish language was what it meant.

    I’m not a scholar of the Irish Language but I do know the accent mark, fada, (-) is over the O for the pronunciation — as are accents in French or Spanish. (Imagine it because I can’t do the mark on regular computer keys. The spelling would be Ofada R…)

    The Brits didn’t understand that and made it an apostrophe (‘). In many Irish birth records the O was left off completely but the church records list the same child as O’Reilly, so it gets confusing doing genealogical research.

    Often on a ship’s manifold the same thing happened — my Dad came to America in 1929 with his older sister, who had returned to Ireland for a visit. He was listed as Reilly and she as O’Reilly, so it made finding his records difficult.

  • SassyBomb

    Hey everyone – I need some help… I’m trying to do some research on my husbands heritage, and would be so grateful for any information anyone might be willing to share in regards to his last name, which is “Mackaig”… As odd as this is, there isn’t a single person in his entire family who knows for sure whether the last name “Mackaig” is of Irish or Scottish origin… I haven’t been able to find much info about it on the internet, and would love to find out more information!! Thanks for you time !

  • TheUrbanNinja

    McLeod is my mother’s maiden name, and my family is part Scottish, I always wondered why it had an extra capital, it makes sense now.