The Origins of English Surnames


Historical Background

Primitive personal names doubtless originated soon after the invention of spoken language, in the unrecorded ages long preceding modern history. For thousands of years first, or given names, were the only designations that men and women bore; and at the dawn of recorded historic times, when the world was less crowded than it is today and every man knew his neighbours, one title of address was sufficient. Only gradually, with the passing centuries and the increasing complexity of civilized society, did a need arise for more specific designations. While the roots of our system of family names may be traced back to early civilised times, actually the hereditary surnames, as we know them today, dates from scarcely more than nine hundred years ago.

A surname is a name added to a baptismal or given name for the purposes of making it more specific and of indicating family relationship or descent. Classified according to origin, most surnames fall into four general groups:

  1. those formed from the given name of the father
  2. those arising from bodily or personal characteristics
  3. those derived from locality or place of residence
  4. those derived from occupation

"Vikings and Surnames" (1991) K. H. Rogers at page 78

Chapter IX: Some Comments, Digressions and Conclusions

B. Cottle, in his book Names, suggests that most lists of English surnames show roughly the following proportions: 40% personal names, 30% locality names, 20% occupational and 10% nicknames.

It is easier to understand the story of the development of our institution of surnames if these classifications are borne in mind.

As early as Biblical times certain distinguishing characteristics were occasionally used in addition to the given name, as, for instance, Swein Forkbeard, Harold Bluetooth, Joshua the son of Nun, Azariah the son of Nathan, Judas of Galilee, and Simon the Zealot.

In ancient Greece a daughter was named after her father, as Chryseis, daughter of Chryses; and a son's name was often an enlargement for of his father's, as Hieronymus son of Hiero.

The Romans, with the rise of their civilisation, met the need for hereditary designations by inventing a complex system whereby every patrician took several names. None of them, however, exactly corresponded to surnames as we know them, for the "clan name", although hereditary, was given also to slaves and other dependents. Examples are the Claudians, the house of Tiberias and the Julians. This system proved to be but a temporary innovation; the overthrow of the Western Empire by Celtic and Germanic barbarian invaders brought about its end and a reversion to the primitive custom of a single name.

The ancient Scandinavians, and for the most part the Germans and the Celts, had only individual names, and there were no family names, strictly speaking. But as family and tribal groups grew in size, individual names became inadequate and the need for supplementary designations began to be felt. Among the first employed were such terms as the Hardy, the Stern, the Dreadful-in-Battle; and the nations of northern Europe soon adopted the practice of adding the father's name to the son's, as Oscar son of Carnuth and Dermid son of Duthno.

True surnames, in the sense of hereditary appellations, date in England from about the year 1000. Largely they were introduced from Normandy, although there are records of Saxon surnames prior to the Norman Conquest. During the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042 to 1066) there were Saxon tenants in Suffolk bearing such names as Suert Magno, Stigand Soror, Siuward Rufus, and Leuric Hobbesune (Hobson); and the Domesday record of 1085 to 1086, which exhibits some curious combinations of Saxon forenames with Norman family names, shows surnames in still more general use.

By the end of the twelfth century hereditary names had become common in England. But even as late as 1465 they were not universal. During the reign of Edward V (between April and June, 1483) a law was passed to compel certain Irish to adopt surnames as a method to track and control them more:

"They shall take unto them a Surname, either of some Town, or some Colour, as Black or Brown, or some Art or Science, as Smyth or Carpenter, or some Office, as Cooke or Butler."

And as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century a similar decree compelling Jews in Germany and Austria to add a German surname to the single names that they had previously used.

Surnames formed from the given name of the father

One of these classes comprises surnames derived from the given name of their father. Such names were formed by adding a prefix or suffix denoting either "son of" or a diminutive. English names terminating in "son" (or the contraction "s"), "ing", and "kin" are of this type, as are also the innumerable names prefixed with the Gaelic "Mac", the Norman "Fitz", The Irish "0", and the Welsh "ap".

Thus the sons of John became Johnsons; the sons of William, Williamsons or Wilsons; the sons of Richard, Richardsons or Richards; the sons of Neill, MacNeills; the sons of Herbert, FitzHerberts; the sons of Reilly O'Reillys; and the sons of Thomas, ap Thomases (ap has been dropped from many names of which it was formerly a part). There are also German, Netherlands, Scandinavian, and other European surnames of similar formation, such as the Scandinavian names ending in "sen". In the Slavic countries the "sky" and "ski" played the same role.

Surnames arising from bodily or personal characteristics

Another class of surnames, those arising from some bodily or personal characteristic of their first bearer, apparently grew out of what were in the first instance nicknames. Thus Peter the strong became Peter Strong, Roger of small stature became Roger Little or Roger Small, and black-haired William or blond Alfred became William Black or Alfred White. A few examples of names of this type are Long, Short, Hardy, Wise, Good, Gladman, Lover, and Youngman.

Surnames derived from locality or place of residence

A third class of family names, and perhaps the largest of all, is that. comprising local surnames - names derived from and originally designating the place of residence of the bearer. Such names were employed in France at an early date (such as La Porte "at the entrance to") and were introduced into England by the Normans, many of whom were known by the titles of their estates.

The surnames adopted by the nobility were chiefly of this type, being used with the particles "de", "de la" or "del" (meaning "of" or "of the"). The Saxon equivalent was the word "atte" ("at the"), found in such names as John atte Brook, Edmund atte Lane, Godwin atte Brigg, and William Atwood, John Atwell and Atwater; in other cases The Norman "de" was substituted; and in still others, such as Wood, Briggs, and Lane, the particle was dropped. The surnames of some of the Pilgrim Fathers illustrate place designations. Winthrop, for instance, means "of the friendly village"; Endicott. "an end cottage"; and Bradford, "a broad for". The suffixes "ford", "ham", "ley", and "ton", denoting locality, are of frequent occurrence in such English names as Ashford, Bingham, Burley, and Norton.

Surnames derived from occupation

Commencing about the time of Edward the Confessor a fourth class of surnames arose, i.e. names derived from occupation. The earliest of these seem to have been official names, such as Bishop, Mayor, Alderman, Reeve, Sheriff, Chamberlain, Chancellor, Chaplain, Deacon, Latimer (interpreter), Marshall, Sumner (summoner), and Parker (parkkeeper). Trade and craft names, although of the same general type, were slightly later development. Currier was a dresser of skins, Webster a weaver, Wainwright a wagon builder, and Baxter a baker. Such names as Smith, Taylor, Barber, Shepherd, Carter, Mason, and Miller are self-explanatory. In France similarly we have La Farr (iron worker); in Germany there was Winegar (vine dresser) and Müller (Miller).

Surnames Today

Some surnames of today which seem to defy classification or explanation are corruptions of ancient forms that have become disguised almost beyond recognition. For instance, Troublefield was originally Tuberville; Wrinch was Renshaw; Diggles was Douglas; Sinnocks and Snooks were Sevenoaks; Barrowcliff and Berrycloth were Barraclough; and Strawbridge was Stourbridge; Such corruptions of family names, resulting from ignorance of spelling, variations in pronunciation, or merely from the preference of the bearer, tend to baffle both the genealogist and the etymologist. Shakespeare's name is found in some twenty-seven different forms, and the majority of English and Anglo-American surnames have, in their history, appeared in four to a dozen or more variant spellings. For example the German family Winegar that came to North America in the Palatine Migration of 1709 has their name listed in various lists as Winegar, Wenniger, Winneger, Weyniger, Wyniger, Weneger, Winiger and Wienneger.

Those who possess old and honored names - who trace their surnames back to sturdy immigrant ancestors, or beyond, across the seas and into the mists of antiquity - may be rightfully proud of their heritage. While the name, in its origin, may seem ingenious, humble, surprising, or matter-of-fact, its significance today lies not in a literal interpretation of its initial meaning but in the many things that have happened to it since it first came into use. In the beginning it was only a label to distinguish one John from his neighbor John who lived across the field. But soon it established itself as part of the bearer's individuality; and as it passed to his children, his children's children, and their children, it became the symbol not of one man but of a family and all that that family stood for. Handed down from generation to generation, the surname grew inseparably associated with the achievement, the tradition, and the prestige of the family. Like the coat of arms - that vivid symbolisation of the name which warrior ancestors bore in battle - the name itself has become a badge of family honor. It has become the "good name" to be proud of and to protect as one's most treasured possession.


Copyright © David Ramsdale 1997 - 2018
All rights reserved