Origins of Our Surname

One question that we've all asked our parents or grandparents is "What does our name mean?" Although our surname is fairly uncommon, it doesn't mean that we all have the same background. In fact, there are several different origins and meanings, depending on where our ancestors lived a few hundred years ago. (Many thanks to John Eckersley for researching most of the information that appears on this page!)

Irish origin:

Based on census returns, the origin for the largest group of people sharing some variation of the "Slaven" surname is Ireland. Many sources list some variation of the following orgin:

Slaven, Slavin, Slevin - Ancestry.com states that the surname is a "reduced form of O'Slavin, an Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Sléibhín, 'descendant of Sléibhín', a name probably derived from sliabh 'mountain' (perhaps originally a short form of Donnshléibhe; see Dunleavy)."

An Etymological Dictionary of Family and Christian Names With an Essay on their Derivation and Import by William Arthur, M.A.; Sheldon, Blake, Bleeker & CO., New York, New York, 1857 gives "(Origin Celtic) From sliabh, a mountain, a mountaineer"

House of Names also gives an Irish origin for the surname, with variations including Slaven, Slavin, Slaving, Slevin, Sleving, Slevan, Sleavin and others. The surname is "(f)irst found in Fermanagh, where they were seated from ancient times, where the Gaelic name was O'Sleibhin, derived from the mountain, a symbolic name for the Chief of this Clan." While House of Names is a commercial concern in the business of selling heraldic and other surname-related products, they do use an impressive list of sources to come up with their surname information.

Swyrich.com provides the following-- for what it's worth-- about a coat of arms and crest for the Irish Slavin: "Coat of Arms: On a silver shield two black lions rampant facing each other and supporting between them the red hand of Ulster, four red eight pointed stars across the top and in base a salmon swimming in the sea. Crest: An arm in armour holding aloft a sword with a wavy blade." Many in the U.K. scoff at Americans' fascination with heraldry, pointing out that in the English system a coat of arms is designated for an individual, and not everyone of the surname. According to this page on Gaelic Irish Heraldry, some hold the view that in Ireland a coat of arms belonged to the sept (clan) rather than the individual. I'll let the traditionalists argue the point... I just think that using the description above, and the Brennan and Mulvihil coats of arms on the Gaelic Irish Heraldry page for inspiration, the Slavin arms would make a really cool tattoo. If you visit the Gaelic Irish Heraldry Page, hit the "Back" link at the bottom of the page for links to several other pages of discussion of Irish heraldry.

As this excerpt from The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places shows, the Gaelic root word sliabh shows up in many place names across Ireland. But living in proximity to one of these places may not have been why our ancestors picked up the surname. According to this page at ireland.com, a very informative site sponsored by The Irish Times, Irish names usually fall into two broad categories, descriptive and occupational. "(W)e can guess that the progenitor of the Traceys (Ó Treasaigh) was a formidable character, treasach meaning 'war-like', while the ancestor of the Duffs must have been dark-featured, since dubh, the root of the name, means black or dark." Interestingly, "(o)ne category of name, common in English, which is extremely rare among Irish names is the toponymic, deriving from the name of a locality." So hundreds of years ago was the progenitor of our surname lines a mountain of a man--well, a hill of a man anyway-- rather than a man of the mountains?

French/English origin:

A Dictionary of English Surnames by Reaney & Wilson gives this information on the surname:

Slaven, Slavin - Old French esclavine "a pilgrim's mantle." In Middle English the term is sclaueyn, slaveyn, or slavyne. Early examples cited by the book are "Roger Sclauin" in the pipe rolls (records of crown revenue and expeditures) ca. 1177 (Pipe Rolls: Record Commission, 3 vols, London 1833-44); and "Goditha Sclauine" in the Assize Rolls (court records) for Shropshire in 1221.

Molokan origin:

The Molokane are a Christian group that was formed by peasants in Russia who refused to join the Russian Orthodox Church beginning in the 16th century. Many Molokane emigrated to the United States and other countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Molokane Home Page is a good source of web links on Molokan history and culture. The Doukhobor Genealogy Website features an "Origin and Meaning of Molokan Surnames" section, which could explain the meaning behind the surname for some of those with an Eastern European background:

Slavin - This patronymic surname is derived from Slava, a diminutive of the men's name Vacheslav. It is also suggested that the name can derive from the term slava, meaning "glory."


According to Ancestry.com, which credits Dictionary of American Family Names, Oxford University Press, besides the Irish origin, the surname may be Jewish from Belarus:

Slaven - "metronymic (derived from one's mother or maternal ancestors) from the Yiddish female personal name Slave (from the Slavic word slava 'glory', 'fame', 'praise') plus the eastern Slavic possessive suffix -in." This would appear to be a mirror image of the Molokane origin (male vs. female).

Other origins:

There may be other origins for surname (if you know of one, drop me a line!), plus some families may have simplified other surnames to become a "Slaven." If you go through the U.S. Census soundex for S415 for 1900-1920, you'll find many similar surnames that may have been shortened or altered in the intervening years: Slaving, Slavinsky, Salven, Slavenburg, Sloven, Slovin, and others.

Copyright © 2005 Larry Slavens. All rights reserved.