Saturday, October 11, 2014

Where does "Ong" come from?

This is a question all of us Ongs have heard many, many times.  And as I've written before, the Ongs are English, with known traces of "Onge" found as early as the 13th century.  So we're as English as the Queen, if not more so!

But what does Ong (or Onge) mean? 

There are many theories for the origin of the name. Many are wild and speculative, but the only scholarly etymological source I have seen is by Henry Barber in his "British Family Names" (London 1903).  It has the following entry (my explanations of the abbreviations are indicated by "(=xx)"):

ONG. N (=Old Norse/Icelandic) Ungi (?) (the younger); F (=Frisian)
Onke, dimin. of Onno; G (=German) Unger; Fl (=Flemish) Ongers; p.n.
(=place name) or Ongar; a loc. n; Essex.

It's somewhat speculative, but I prefer the idea that Ong is a Nordic cognate of young or younger.  In fact the modern Danish word for young is "unge" and modern Norwegian for young is "ung".  And given early medieval English history, Nordic or "Viking" sources are pretty likely for an East Anglian family.

Michael Linwood in his history of Barningham, Suffolk, "Our Own People" highlights the early (and long-lasting) association of the Ong family with the village and offers the following observation:

"Inherited names were not customary amongst the ordinary people in Anglo-Saxon times, but the name Ong seems to have Old Norse origins.  It gives rise to the theory that Viking families had been clinging to their Danish origins since they invaded and remained conscious of their individual cultural background."

The Viking influence in eastern and northern England dates from 865 when the "Danes" landed a large army in East Anglia (which includes Suffolk).  By 867 the Danes had conquered the Kingdom or Northumbria with its capital in York and in 869 conquered the Kingdom of East Anglia, defeating King Edmund the Martyr, subsequently enshrined in St Edmundsbury Abbey (in today's Bury St Edmunds, the principal town of West Suffolk).

After conquering most of the central Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, the Danes were defeated by King Alfred (the "Great") of Wessex in 878, but the subsequent treaty with the Danish leader Guthrum in 880 granted the new Norse settlers self-rule over most of North and Eastern England, known as the "Danelaw".  Norse settlers continued to emigrate to England in this period, although they were quasi-assimilated into Anglo-Saxon society and substantially converted to Christianity.  Viking attempts to re-establish states in England continued until 1075, by which time England had been conquered by the Normans (1066) of Northern France (themselves originally of Norse origin as suggested by their name).

So to be English a thousand years ago could certainly mean living in what we would today call a multi-ethnic culture.  I recently did a DNA test which revealed that my ancestry was 14% "Scandinavian", even though according to family lore and my (wide, but not complete) knowledge of ancestral surnames I have no known Scandinavian ancestors.  Maybe that is where the Ong DNA resides!

Some of my cousins have changed their names from Ong to St.Onge (a corruption of the French province of Saintonge) or DeOng on the assumption that our name was originally French, and a restoration to something more Gallic-sounding would be more accurate (and perhaps less Asian-sounding).  Well there are quite a number of French-Canadian St.Onges out there, but they're no relation to us.  So sorry guys, you're wrong: Say it loud, I'm "Ong" and I'm proud!


  1. my name is ong I collaborate with tan

  2. Interesting to know that on your side of the Atlantic, your surname Ong was formerly Onge. I'm sure you know by now there are thousands of Ongs out there you're not associated with, I'm one of them. Ong is the fifth most common surname in Singapore where I'm from. I've always thought we were all chinese until today. Found out only by researching this person called Walter J. Ong who is in your family line.

    1. Hi Dennis. I believe Walter was my great grandfather! His son Gilbert was my grandfather and one of my sons has Walter as a middle name!

    2. Hi Cousin Frances! Nice to e-meet you. Since the Walter J. Ong mentioned above was an American Jesuit priest (and a famous scholar) he is not going to be your great-grandfather, but anyway there are many Walter Ongs in the family tree on both sides of the Atlantic. I would be interested to try to piece together your part of the family into the puzzle - I am in touch with over 200 cousins in the UK and the US, and can be contacted at ongfamilyhistory'at' Hope you enjoy the articles in the blog, and there is some additional material on the Ong Family History page on Facebook, which hopefully you will "like"! -the Editor (John Ong)

      PS Did you know the founder of the Ong family in America was a recently widowed woman named Frances Ong? She was from Lavenham, Suffolk and crossed the Atlantic with her children in 1630-31 and died in Watertown, Massachusetts in 1638.

  3. Yes, indeed the Ongs of European origin are very aware of the many Asian Ongs out there! One of the interesting thing to observe in going through historical documents is how that realization grew over the course of the 20th century. In the transcript of the many speeches in the 1905 Ong Family Reunion there are many references to the rarity of the name but none to its Asian sound, while today the Ongs talk about this all the time. Anyway we salute all our homographic/homonymic Ong "cousins" and appreciate your interest in our humble history! -The Editor

  4. My great grand mother was married to an ong and I've traced them back to welney and upwell area of Norfolk possibly up to wells if anyone has any ties please reply thankd

    1. Dear Damon,

      I am in touch with several branches of the Ong family on the English side of the tree/pond, most of which are not too many generations removed from East Anglia (and some still live there). If you write me with whatever you know (especially names) at ongfamilyhistory"at" I will share with the local experts! -The Editor

    2. I am a Norfolk, Ong, it seems my lineage didn't inherit the Wanderlust that the U.S based Ong's on this blog appear to have! I recently traced my line back to John Ong of Hartest in Suffolk (d.1609).

      My line goes Hartest > New Buckenham > Norwich, which is where I live now. So we travelled around 50 miles over a 400 year period!

      I believe this is the furthest back we can go, though I did just read the post on the Will from John Ong in 1541, so seems this could be the connection to the other Ongs in Suffolk there?

      If you would like to get in touch my email is happy to share more information from my tree.

    3. Dear Cousin Stephen,

      Many thanks for reaching out. I am always excited to meet more of my English cousins! will send you an email directly now.

      -The Editor

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