The Origin of Surnames and Family Names in the English Speaking World
N.B: Please note, all my articles are best read on desktops and laptops
In the English speaking world, and indeed in all other languages and all nations, they are the most personal of possessions - our names. They are the most fundamental identifiers of who we are - 'What is your name?' is the first question we are ever asked by anyone who wishes to establish our identity. But where do our names come from?
'First names' - traditionally in the English speaking world known as 'Christian' names - are given to us by our parents (perhaps in these days when not everyone is Christian or even religious, the term 'given name' is more appropriate). In Western civilisation there is really no hard and fast rule about such names. Many have historic significance, but that history may not even be apparent to the parents who choose the name. Most are given simply because the parents think they 'sound nice', or to commemorate a relative - a grandparent, for example. Some are male, some are female, and some are applicable to either sex. Some are very old, but increasingly today, many are made up at the whim of the parents to celebrate some ethos or a celebrity who they happen to admire. And often the owner of the name chooses in later life to use another name, a 'middle' name or nickname, in preference to the given name.
'Last names' - traditionally in the English speaking world known as 'surnames' - are rather different. Surnames are very much rooted in history, in ancient origins and the professions of our predecessors. They are passed down generation to generation. They can tell us something very definite about our ancestors, and - although they may be changed if one so chooses (and frequently are on the female side through marriage) - they can provide a direct link to our relatives in the world both past and present because they are 'family names'. That all makes them fascinating. This page is concerned with surnames and family names mostly originating from Great Britain, and how they came into being.
English Language Surnames - The History
- The Time of Christian Names
It may come as a surprise to some, but the general use of surnames in Great Britain dates back only to about the 12th century AD. Throughout the first 1000 years of Christianity, the majority of people were known by just one name, which may originally have been of Old English pagan origin, or of Anglo Saxon origin. From the 4th century AD there was also an increasing tendency to 'encourage' the adoption of the names of saints or other Biblical figures - hence, 'Christian' names, which were given at the ceremony of Christening. 
In 1066 William, the Duke of Normandy ('William the Conqueror') commanded the last successful invasion of Britain and took the English crown at the Battle of Hastings. In so doing, he inadvertently set into motion a chain of events which changed not only English Christian names, but also contributed indirectly to the development of surnames. The Norman invasion had brought about an influx of Norman first names, still familiar to us today - notably male names like Richard, Henry, Robert, Geoffrey, and of course William and indeed 'Norman', and female names such as Claire, Alice and Matilda. But the introduction of Norman names also contributed to a drastic decline in the fashionability of many of the old Anglo-Saxon names - names such as Aethelred, Hereward, Oswald and Leofric. Norman blood was perceived as high status noble blood, and people wanted to associate themselves with this through the adoption of selected Norman names, and as a result, the net effect was a reduction in the number of common first names. Indeed, as late as the 13th century, a third of all males in this country had one of just three names - William, Richard or John. 
- The Time of By-names and Surnames
Now such a limited range of names may have been fine when people lived in very small village communities, everybody had a limited circle of acquaintances, and there was no nationwide organisation of society. If there was more than one person with the same name in a community, they could easily be identified by their lifestyle, their profession, or by some physical characteristic. Suppose for example there were four Richards in a village, and suppose one of them lived on a hillside, one of them was a farmer, and one had an unusually ruddy complexion. Well, you might refer to the first as Richard from the hill, the second may become known as Richard the farmer, and the third would become Richard the red head. And the fourth? Well, if he was the son of a man called John, he might be referred to as Richard - John's son.These were just 'by-names' used simply for those situations where several people had the same Christian name. However, abbreviation of these by-names would later give us many of the surnames familiar to us today. Thus Richard from the hill might eventually become known as Richard Hill, Richard the farmer would become Richard Farmer, and we would also have Richard Redhead and Richard Johnson. 
- N.B: In some communities today where one surname is particularly common, by-names may still be used almost as an affectionate nickname. For example in parts of Wales, where surnames such as Jones, Williams, Davies and Evans are particularly common, one might speak of 'Jones the butcher' or Jones the baker'. On the Scottish island of Lewis, the name MacLeod is similarly very common. 
Clearly the use of by-names and surnames made it much easier to determine just which Richard we were talking about, though at this stage, the name wasn't fixed, and may have varied during the course of a person's life. For example if he changed his occupation, Richard the farmer (Richard Farmer) may become Richard the carpenter (Richard Carpenter). This would still have been OK in a small village, but as society became more organised and documented, and people became employed by others to do work for them, this might have caused obvious and considerable problems with identification. 
In addition to a lack of continuity of name during the course of one person's life, there was also clearly a lack of continuity from one generation to the next. And a particular problem would have occurred with our fourth example of Richard. What if Richard - John's son had a child whom he called David? David wouldn't be John's son - he would be Richard's son. Richard Johnson's offspring would be David Richardson - a confusing situation! 
- The Time of Family Names
So the by-name or surname was not yet a family name, and it was only under the reign of Henry V in the late 14th century that the process of standardisation and inheritance of surnames began, so that the name would identify not just the individual throughout his/her lifetime, but also the family for perpetuity. Richard Farmer would always be Richard Farmer, and Richard Johnson's descendants would always be Johnsons. This had major advantages for censuses, settling of family estates etc. The process began with the aristocracy, though many centuries would pass before the majority of the peasantry fully adopted the system. 
One further development was necessary to make the inheritance of family names conform to a standard - a development implicit in the examples of 'Richard' which I have already given. Whose name should be passed on, the father or the mother? Or both? In other societies different methods of passing on names were adopted, but in England the standard was set by Henry VIII in the 16th century. It became a requirement for all legitimate births to be recorded under the father's surname. In English speaking nations this remains the norm today, though exceptions to the rule increasingly occur, and these will be briefly mentioned later. 
At the moment however, our concern will be with the origin of today's surnames. We have already given four examples of surnames of a man named Richard, and these will now serve to identify the four most common origins of surnames.
1) LOCATION SURNAMES - eg: Richard Hill
Most common of all are names which were given to indicate a person's homeland, or the locality in which they lived - as many as 43% of surnames may originally have been of this derivation. Nationalities (England, Ireland, Holland etc), cities (Lincoln, York, Preston, Hamilton, Windsor), villages (Lindley, Bickerton, Topham), architectural features (Castle, Bridges, Mill, Stone) and geographical features (Rivers, Glen, Ford, Bush, Underwood, Grove), are all very familiar sources of peoples' surnames. Such names may also gives clues regarding the class status of the original family member to bear the name. Barons may have taken on the names of their estates, whilst mere peasants had to satisfy themselves with a local village name or landmark. 
Most of the names above are fairly clear, but a great many more obscure regional names have also existed for different landmark features, and these all contributed surnames to the mix. For example, the word 'borough' has variously given us Boroughs, Burke, Bourke, Bury and Burrowes. Various local names for rivers and streams have given us Burn, Bourne, Sykes and Fleet. 
Names originally derived from non-English languages such as Gaelic, may also be less obviously of this kind. Craig comes from the Gaelic for crags (rocky outcrops). Boyd and Blair are both ancient place names in Scotland, and Blair may ultimately have its origins in a Gaelic word for 'field'. Hepburn means 'high burial mound'. Carr comes from an Old Norse word meaning 'marsh', while Neville - as a French speaker may appreciate - is derived from a Norman term for 'new town'. 
2) OCCUPATIONAL SURNAMES - eg: Richard Farmer
Surnames denoting the occupation with which an ancestor was particularly noted make up about 15% of the total number of original names. Because these often represent a trade, many end in the suffix 'er'. Examples include Porter, Hunter, Miller, Butcher, Fisher, Weaver and Baker. Others in this category include Judge, Mason, Taylor, Cook and Clark. Military occupations such as Archer, Knight, Bowman and Pike and gentler artistic occupations such as Painter, Harper and Player are well represented in ancient surnames. Some old trade names are slightly less obvious in the modern era, including Cooper (a barrel maker), Leech (a medic), Latimer (an interpreter), Chapman (a shopkeeper) and Fletcher (an arrow maker). Names of people of high rank such as King or Lord or Baron, and religious names such as Bishop, Priest and Abbot also fall into this category, though the origins of these may not be as clear cut as they appear - of course one's ancestor may well have had some such esteemed role in society, but the reality may sadly be a little more mundane, as actors who regularly played these specific roles in medieval passion plays and other festivities are believed to have also adopted these names. 
Finally, this category includes the most common of all English language surnames Smith - designated to embrace a multitude of metal craftwork professions such as blacksmiths. At least 3 million people in the United States are called Smith, and more than 500,000 people in the United Kingdom. (7)
Reading through this extensive list one might reasonably wonder why occupational names only made up 15% of names. But these statistics are for the frequency with which the original surnames were applied. In recent centuries many more people adopted occupational surnames for reasons related to immigration (see later).
3) DESCRIPTIVE SURNAMES - eg: Richard Redhead
About 9% of English names are descriptive nicknames by origin. Most of these are also fairly self-explanatory in nature. People may have been called Little or Small or Long, Young, Redman or White because of their physical characteristics or the unusual colour of their hair or their complexion. Grant comes from a Norman word meaning grand or tall, and conversely, Vaughan comes from a Welsh word which means little. Mention should also be made of the prefix 'Kil' as in Kilpatrick. One might assume that this is a relationship name denoting a relative of Patrick, but in fact it is believed to indicate a follower of St Patrick. 
Some were named for character traits for better or worse (though understandably it is the more favourable names which have survived best to the present day). Goodman is clearly a name one may wish to be associated with - an ancestor was probably given this name because of some favourable deeds he had done. Wise is another such name. Perceived character traits shared with animals also gave rise to descriptive nicknames. Fox, Bull and Sparrow are examples. 
Again, many very common names which are not of English ancestry, can be related to descriptive terms, though these may be less obvious. Some of these which have survived to the present day are less complimentary - perhaps because the original meaning was unknown and therefore inoffensive to English ears. Two examples include the Scottish names Cameron, which means 'crooked nose', and Campbell, which means 'crooked mouth'. Cruickshank means 'bent legs'. And the Irish name Doherty has been variously described as meaning 'obstructive' or 'hurtful'. Finally, the names Wallace and Walsh seem to have been 'catch all' surnames designating any person who was a stranger or a foreigner. 
Finally, mention should be made of 'ornamental' surnames rather than genuinely descriptive surnames. These are very uncommon in English etymology, but more frequent in other cultures including those of Africa and the Middle East. One example is the Jewish name Morgenstern, which means 'morning star'. 
4) RELATIONSHIP SURNAMES - eg: Richard Johnson
The second most common source of names making up about 33% of all original surnames, are those which reflect a family relationship.These of course include all those with 'son' in the name (Davidson, Stevenson, Watson, Thompson, Ferguson etc). But there are many other surnames which also fall into this category. Many names ending in 's' imply that the person 'belonged' to a forebear with the related Christian name (Rogers, Davies, Reynolds, Edwards and Roberts are all good examples, though some of these may represent a different relationship - that of servant, as in Vickers - 'a vicker's man'). And Hickman similarly means 'Hick's man' (Hick was a pet name for Richard). 
Again, what are less obvious are the names of Scottish and Irish origin. 'Mac' or 'Mc' means 'son' and indicates a family or clan relationship. MacGregor and McDonald are good examples. The Irish 'O' prefix (O'Neill and O'Reilly) means 'from', as in 'the family descended from'. The prefix 'Fitz' is Norman French in origin and also means 'son of', and this became popular in the period after the Norman conquest. Examples would include Fitzgerald and Fitzsimmons (sons of Gerald and Simon). 
Finally, one should point out that just as with locational surnames, many of these relationship names have a common basic origin which was adapted in different ways in different locales. Williamson, Williams, Willis, Wilmot, Wilkins, Wilkinson, and Wilcox, all can relate to the descendants of people called William 
Words Of Caution When Analysing Surname Origins
Of course the situation isn't always as straightforward as the four surname origins above, suggest. Many names have multiple or composite origins. Take the name 'Houston'. Of course the city takes its name from the man, Sam Houston, but where did he take it from? The first part is thought to be a corruption of the given name Hugh, whilst the second syllable is derived from the Old English 'tun' which means settlement (town). An even more famous American, George Washington, has a name deriving from one of several villages in England, but a great many Americans with the name today have no connection whatsoever with old English villages, as will be clear in a later section which looks at slave surnames. 
Another complication surrounds the popular name of Collins. It can derive from an Irish clan name, or it can have a quite different ancestry as one of several English surnames derived from the personal name Nicholas. 
The surname Blake may have two entirely opposite meanings. Firstly it has been thought of as a variation of Black, given to someone of dark complexion. But alternatively it can derive from the Old English word, 'blac' meaning fair. Indeed, it is likely that the latter origin is more common, originally applied by Anglo Saxons as a derogatory reference to the pale skinned Vikings 
Finally, the surname Lee appears in two quite different cultures. In English culture, it is a particularly ancient name with more than one original meaning - a clearing in a forest, or a wetland. Or it may apply to a person who hailed from one of the many villages with the name of Lee. But Lee can also be an anglicisation of the extremely common Chinese surname Li. (as in martial arts actor Bruce Lee) 
Distribution Of Surnames In Space And Time
Surnames can not only tell us something about past occupations and lifestyles and physical or character traits; they can also tell us something about the region of the world our ancestors came from, and the era of history from which they originated.
Obviously some locational names like Kent or Wiltshire may give direct clues to a surname's regional origin, but other clues can be gleaned from rarer occupational names, which may have existed in only a handful of families in Medieval times. For example, the name Arkwright (a maker of wooden chests) is only known from the county of Lancashire, whilst Frobisher (a cleaner or furbisher of armour) is a name from the neighbouring county of Yorkshire. 
Particular occupations were more common in certain parts of the country. The dry reeds and rushes used in the craft of roof thatching were only harvested in certain regions so names such as Thatcher and Reed associated with this skill, originate in these regions. We've already seen how a familial surname was passed on by adding 'son' or 's' to a surname, but which option was chosen may reflect the part of the world the family came from. 'Son' was favoured in the north of England, whilst 's' was more common as a suffix in the south of England and later on in Wales (as in Evans, Williams and Edwards. And the most common of all Welsh names, Jones, is such a name - a derivative of John). 
Occupational surnames can also indicate the era when they first came into being. For example, 'Wright' is an Old English term for a worker in wood, but after the Norman invasion this was largely replaced by the word 'carpenter'. Therefore, whilst both Wright and Carpenter (and associated names like Cartwright and Wainwright) are clearly occupational names in the English speaking world, the surname may also reflect the date of origin or the Anglo-Saxon or Norman ancestry of the family with these names. Likewise, a building spree in England between the 12th and 14th century contributed to a big increase in names such as Leadbeater, Mason and Slater at this time. 
All of this may be fascinating if you like etymology, but unfortunately family names have often changed since Medieval times when most first originated. The next three sections discuss some of these changes which make it difficult to accurately assess a person's ancestral history, and relate why the changes happened.
SURNAME CHANGES - 1) Name Changes At Marriage And Birth
As we have seen, the value in organised society of passing surnames on to the next generation as family names has been recognised at least since the 14th century. But there have always been circumstances - even today - when it is either necessary or desirable for people to change their names during life. The prime example of a necessary change has been on the occasion of the union of a man and woman in marriage. At that point members of two families become one, and practicality dictates that one of the family names has usually changed.
For historic reasons, women normally take the man's surname upon marriage. However, options exist in most countries for alternative arrangements, and modern trends in social-sexual practice mean that the male in a marriage contract may increasingly take the surname of the female. Indeed in 1979, the United Nations adopted the convention that both sexes should have equal rights in this regard. (The first known example of an American woman refusing to change her maiden name was actually surprisingly long ago - a woman called Lucy Stone in 1855). 
There are other reasons besides sexual equality which may occasion this reverrsal of roles, for example to preserve a surname on the female side which is in danger of disappearing, or to preserve a famous or prestigious familial link. Still others may wish to retain their birth name because it is the name with which their work before marriage is associated (female celebrities are the most notable example today, but certain professional people including academics who have published reputable papers under their maiden name may also fall into this category). And others will choose this course because of a simple dislike for their partner's name (is it surprising that Longbottoms, Pratts and Willeys still survive so commonly?) 
In marriages where neither partner wishes to adopt the other's name there are still options. It is possible today, for a married couple to choose a surname entirely different from either of their birth names. Others who wish to retain both their birth names have got round the problem by combining the two names, perhaps with a hyphen (though the limitations for perpetrating the resultant name are obvious - what happens when Mr Knight-Jones marries Miss Brooke-Taylor? Do they change their name to Knight-Jones-Brooke-Taylor?) Finally, the recent phenomenon of same-sex marriages may introduce further complications in the convention of marriage names. However, in the majority of instances in the English speaking world women do still take the husband's name - it's a convention which seems to work well as long as society accepts it. 
And what happens when marriage leads to the birth of a child? Ever since it was first decreed that the father's surname should be passed on to his offspring to retain the familial link, that has remained the custom. But there still have to be exceptions. One exception of course is in those cases where a child's paternity is not known. And of course children brought up by foster or adoptive parents may also have a different name to their parents. 
SURNAME CHANGES - 2) Miscellaneous Changes During Life
If society decreed that official name changes upon marriage were necessary to maintain some order, individuals have also sought through history to change their surnames for a variety of other reasons.
One reason has been to to enable individuals to dissociate themselves from the stigma attached to a wrongdoer in the family history, or to develop a prestigious new persona. Perhaps the two most obvious examples of these are not English, but they serve to illustrate the point. It seems that prior to World War Two there were 22 people with the surname Hitler in the New York phone book. After the war there were none. Names had been changed to remove the infamy. By contrast, 20th century Europe's other mass murderer decided to create his own new name. Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili - a Georgian - chose to call himself Josef Stalin, which sounded more Russian and a much more emotionally strong name; it means 'Man of Steel'. Today many celebrities of course choose their own 'stage name' by which they will become known - usually something rather more glamorous than their original name. However, many of these still retain their original family name for official purposes. 
A further source of surname changes is simple spelling mistakes. In times when the levels of literacy were low, poorly educated parents may not have been able to provide a spelling, in which case the legal authority - clerk or minister - may spell the name based on pronunciation. This led to many different versions of the same surname down through the ages. As would be expected, this was particularly prevalent in Medieval times, and a great number of quite similar surnames are the result of these deviations in spelling. Examples include Brown and Browne. Indeed, truly standardised spelling of a family name over many generations has only really occurred in the past two hundred years. 
In more recent centuries, family name changes have been most associated with immigration. Many immigrants into English speaking nations have chosen to amend their surnames either to avoid persecution or to make their names more pronounceable, so that they can fit in better in our society. For example, when a large number of Jewish settlers arrived in England in the 17th century, many chose to anglicize their names so they would not be discriminated against. In America, the Spanish, German and Hebrew languages have been very influential in the names of citizens today. German surnames in particular, more often reflect trades and occupations than do English names, and German settlers frequently changed their names to the English version, or to a near equivalent. Thus Becker often became Baker, and Weber became Weaver. And many Schmidts dropped the 'Sch' sound and became Smiths. (This influx of Europeans incidentally increased the proportion of the population with occupational names in our societies quite considerably from the original 15% indicated earlier). Colour names too are common in Germany, so people with the surname Grun (Green), Roth (Red), Weiss (White) or Schwarz (Black) also often anglicized their names. 
SURNAME CHANGES - 3) Slave Surnames
One particularly unfortunate and indeed tragic subset of 'immigrants' are those who were forced in past centuries to live their lives in new lands at the hands of the slave trade. Descendents of former slaves are relevant to this discussion because the great majority of their ancestors underwent name changes during their lives, and of course those changed names still exist today in very significant numbers in America, and in the former colonies of powers like the United Kingdom. At the time they were acquired, these were not - strictly speaking - family names, because true family names either did not exist or were lost in the break-up of families by the slave trade. Instead, they were just names given by an owner, or chosen by a slave. However, through the passing down of the name to subsequent generations they have now become family names in a very real sense.
In English speaking America and in the West Indies, slaves were given new names by their masters for a variety of purposes - to remove any sense of ancestral identity, to establish 'legitimate' ownership, or simply because it became necessary for official census records. Some slaves were assigned surnames according to the work they did; for this reason 'Cotton' is quite common today among black slave descendants. And some, but by no means the majority, were given their owner's surname .
Even after emancipation when former slaves could choose their own names, some voluntarily took the former owner's name because it made practical sense to retain an association with a master who would still have been a powerful land owner and employer. Others who knew their family history, chose the name of their oldest identified African ancestor. Still others simply took their true father's name, though understandably a further issue (not only applying to slaves but also to other less ordered societies throughout history) is that many children would have been born out of wedlock, either through rape or simply because legal marriage had not been an available option. In these cases, the mother's name may be chosen. 
Still others chose for themselves surnames which they recognised as important and respected figures in the nation they were now a true part of. In America the 2000 census showed 163,036 people with the surname 'Washington'. Of these, 90% were African-Americans. 'Jefferson', likewise, is a name with a large African-American base - 75% of all Jeffersons are black. 'Freeman', is another name which was often chosen, for obvious reasons. 
Former slaves would continue to choose and change their names for many decades, but gradually as they became more integrated into society, it became necessary - just as had been recognised in other societies for many centuries - for these names to become standardised. Two particular driving forces for this need to identify people of all communities more accurately were the introduction of social security, and the draft for the First World War. 
But even in the later 20th century, black people would sometimes choose to change their names, and for understandable reasons. Identification with a 'white name' or a 'slave name' has led to some people (most famously Cassius Clay / Muhammed Ali) choosing to ditch their name and adopt a new one based on culture or religion. And studies have sadly shown that for others, even today a name-based prejudice still exists; one indicated that job applicants with 'white' sounding names received 50% more favourable responses than those with 'black' sounding names. 
As we have seen, our surnames can tell us something of our past; the occupation, character or appearance of at least one individual in our family at one moment in history. The surname may even indicate the exact locality in which they lived and give clues as to their wealth and status in society. It is the first clue as to who we are and where we came from, and it can prejudicially affect the way others see us.
As we have also seen, notes of caution also have to be borne in mind. Marriages, emigrations and immigrations, illiteracy and personal choice have all meant that the names which some of us have today may not reflect our ancestral history at all. They may have been acquired surprisingly recently.
Nonetheless, learning about the names we have can be fascinating. Today, the study of genealogy and the exploration of our family history is a popular past time for many people, and of all the tools which are available for undertaking such research, none is more important than the name we were destined to be given even before birth.
So bearing in mind the notes of caution, I hope this page has whetted the appetite to learn more about your name. If it has, I recommend The Internet Surname Database as the most detailed analysis of individual surnames available on the net. Check it out, and hopefully you will find fascinating and intriguing clues to your past. Maybe you can take pride if your name points to a powerful or esteemed ancestor. And if the name origin does prove less than flattering - well you can always dismiss it as a mere quirk of historic name changes and spelling mistakes!
Please feel free to quote limited text from this article, on condition that an active link back to this page is included
Origin Of The Names Of The 50 United States Of America
- Origin of the Names of the 50 United States of America
Everybody knows the names of the United States of America. But where do the names of the states come from? The aim of this page is to chart the origins and meanings of the names of all 50 states
All My Other Pages ...
I have written articles on many subjects including science and history, politics and philosophy, film reviews and travel guides, as well as poems and stories. All can be accessed by clicking on my name at the top of this page
- 1) Surname History - Crests.com
- 2) 1066 and all those baby names - BBC
- 3) Family History; What's In a Name? Your Link to the Past - BBC
- 4) Behind the Name - The Etymology and History of Surnames
- 5) Surname - Wikipedia
- 6) Family name - Wikipedia
- 7) 10 of the Most Common Surnames in the World - The World Geography
- 8) Last Name Origins - Surname Database
- 9) The blackest name in America: 163,000 have the surname Washington - Mail Online
- 10) The Daily Perversion
- 11) The Effect of Immigration on Surnames - FamilyEducation.com
- 12) Lists of most common surnames - Wikipedia
- 13) Slave name - Wikipedia
- 14) Researching African - Caribbean Family History - BBC
- 15) Dr James Cheshire, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society
© 2014 Greensleeves Hubs
More by this Author
The days of the week and the months of the year are the yardstick by which we define the turning of the Earth on its axis, and the revolution of the Earth around the Sun, and by which we date the events of our lives....
The days of the week and the months of the year are the yardstick by which we define the turning of the Earth on its axis, and the revolution of the Earth around the Sun, and by which we date the events of our lives....
Some of the wittiest and most humorous quotations in the English language are quotations about age; about childhood, about adolescence, middle age and growing old. On this page are a few of the best.