Surnames can reveal much about your family history, but they can also be a minefield of misinformation.
By Paul Blake
Last updated 2011-04-26
Surnames can reveal much about your family history, but they can also be a minefield of misinformation.
'What is in a name? Very much if the wit of man could find it out.' Whoever penned this well known saying undoubtedly had it right - in England alone there are around 45,000 different surnames - each with a history behind it.
The sources from which names are derived are almost endless: nicknames, physical attributes, counties, trades, heraldic charges, and almost every object known to mankind. Tracing a family tree in practice involves looking at lists of these names - this is how we recognise our ancestors when we find them.
Before the Norman Conquest of Britain, people did not have hereditary surnames: they were known just by a personal name or nickname.
Many individuals and families have changed their names or adopted an alias at some time in the past
When communities were small each person was identifiable by a single name, but as the population increased, it gradually became necessary to identify people further - leading to names such as John the butcher, William the short, Henry from Sutton, Mary of the wood, Roger son of Richard. Over time many names became corrupted and their original meaning is now not easily seen.
After 1066, the Norman barons introduced surnames into England, and the practice gradually spread. Initially, the identifying names were changed or dropped at will, but eventually they began to stick and to get passed on. So trades, nicknames, places of origin, and fathers' names became fixed surnames - names such as Fletcher and Smith, Redhead and Swift, Green and Pickering, Wilkins and Johnson. By 1400 most English families, and those from Lowland Scotland, had adopted the use of hereditary surnames.
Most Saxon and early Celtic personal names - names such Oslaf, Oslac, Oswald, Oswin and Osway ('Os' meaning God) - disappeared quite quickly after the Norman invasion. It was not fashionable, and possibly not sensible either, to bear them during those times, so they fell out of use and were not often passed on as surnames. However, some names from before the Norman Conquest survived long enough to be inherited directly as surnames, including the Anglo-Saxon Cobbald (famous-bold).
New surnames continued to be formed long after 1400, and immigrants brought in new ones. Many Irish and Highland Scottish names derive from Gaelic personal names, as do those of the Welsh, who only began to adopt the English system of surnames following the union of the two countries in 1536. This is all too far back to be helpful in researching family origins, although the study of a particular surname may be useful when the investigation points to an area where it appears often.
Many individuals and families have changed their names or adopted an alias at some time in the past. This could be for legal reasons, or simply on a whim, but points up the fact that although the study of surnames is vital in family history research, it is all too easy to place excessive emphasis on them.
Your surname may be derived from a place, such as Lancaster, for example, or an occupation, such as Weaver, but this is not necessarily of relevance to your family history. You could be in the position of Tony Blair, whose ancestor acquired his name from adoptive or foster parents.
Another complication is that sometimes two different names can appear to be the same one, being similar in sound, but different in origin. The fairly common name of Collins is an example of this. It comes from an Irish clan name, but it is also one of several English surnames derived from the personal name Nicolas.
Thus you can see that only by tracing a particular family line, possibly back to the 14th century or beyond, will you discover which version of a surname is yours. It is more important to be aware that both surnames and forenames are subject to variations in spelling, and not only in the distant past. Standardised spelling did not really arrive until the 19th century, and even in the present day variations occur, often by accident - how much of your post has your name spelt incorrectly?
Surnames deriving from a place are probably the oldest and most common. They can be derived from numerous sources - country, town or estate - or from features in the landscape - hill, wood or stream. Many of these names, and their derivation are obvious, other less so. The names Pickering, Bedford, Berkley and Hampshire might have been given to migrants who left those places during the period of surname formation, or they may have been the names of the landowners where the individuals lived.
Features of the landscape gave rise to many surnames
Many people took their name from their farm or hamlet. This was particularly the case in those counties where occupation was scattered, and the Pennines and Devon have more than their share of distinctive names.
Countries give us names such as French, Beamish (Bohemian), Britten, Fleming, Hannay (Hainault), Janeway (Genoese), Lubbock (Lubeck) and Moore (Morocco), among many others. And it's interesting that Blackmore, Morys, Moris, Morris, Morice, Morrice, Maurice, Moorish and Mountmorris are themselves all further forms of Moore.
Nearly every county, town, riding, hundred, wapentake, village, hamlet and even single house, at any date, has given its name. Again, most are obvious, but there are some surprises - such as Bristowe (both Bristol and Burstow in Surrey), and Vyse (Devizes or a dweller on the boundary). Thorpe means a village and there are numerous names derived from the word borough - examples are Boroughs, Bury, Burg, Burke, Bourke, Borrow and Burrowes.
Features of the landscape gave rise to many surnames. There are very many names derived from hill. In addition to Hill and Hills there are: Hull, Athill, Holt, Wold, Noll, Knollys, Knolles, Ness, Thill and Knill. Similarly we have Wood, Woods, Greenwood, Woodman, Woodruffe, Woodcutter and Attwood.
Many names come from rivers and streams: Surtees (on the Tees), Pickersgill (a stream with a pike in it), Hope and Holm (raised land in a fen), Fleet (estuary or stream), Burn and Bourne (a stream) and Sike and Sykes (a marshy stream).
Trees give names such as Leaf, Bark and Root, as well as Stock, Zouch and Curzon which all mean a stem. Then there are Elmes, Hazelthwaite and Maples, and oak alone gives rise to Oakley, Oakerley, Noakes, Oakham, Ockham, and many others, with Cheynes and Chenies coming from the French for oak, un chène.
Other surnames were formed from a person's job or trade. The three most common English names are Smith, Wright and Taylor. Cook and Turner are also very common.
A name ending in -man or -er can usually imply a trade, as in Chapman (shopkeeper), and obvious occupation names are Goldsmith, Nailor, Potman, Belringer, Hornblower, Fiddler, Brewer, Piper, Baker and so forth. Among the less obvious are Latimer (interpreter), Leech (physician), Barker (tanner), Jenner (engineer), Milner (miller rather than milliner), Lorimer (bridle and bit maker), Pargiter, Pargetter and Dauber (plasterer), Bannister (bath keeper), and Crowther and Crowder (stringed instrument player).
The arts gave us Painter, Fiddler, Harper, Piper and Player.
The rarer occupational names are sometimes restricted in their distribution, as are other names that possibly originated with only one or two families. For example, the Arkwrights (makers of arks or chests) are from Lancashire, the Crappers (croppers) and Frobishers (furbishers or cleaners of armour) are from Yorkshire, and the Dymonds (dairymen) are from Devon. On the other hand, some distinctive names were influenced by more prolific occupational names, and names that started out as Goldsmith, Combsmith or Smithson may have become simply Smith.
Occupational names will differ in frequency in certain areas for several reasons. The geography of a district may favour one or more specific industries such as stone-masonry, thatching or fishing and the distribution of Mason, Thatcher and Fisher will reflect this. Thatcher also gives rise to Thacker, Thackery, Thackwray, and also Reedand Reader.
The more prolific 12th- to 14th-century building skills are represented by Wright, Slater, Leadbeater, Carpenter and Plummer. With no real brick industry during this period the surname Brick or Bricker does not exist - Brickman derives from the Norse 'brigg' meaning bridge.
Similarly with names derived from military occupations, there are no names from firearms, only those derived from the weaponry and occupations around in these early centuries. Such names include Knight, Squire, Archer, Bowman, Fletcher (arrow maker), Pike and the ubiquitous Smith.
The arts gave us Painter, Fiddler, Harper, Piper and Player. And from the church we have Pope, Bishop, Monk and Abbott. However, these are most likely to have been nicknames rather than actual occupations, as with King. Or possibly they originated from performers in the Mystery or other religious plays.
Sometimes a nickname became a hereditary surname. Names such as Fox, from the crafty animal, or White, perhaps from the hair or complexion, are widespread. However, the pronounced regional distribution of names such as Nice in Essex or Wildgoose in Derbyshire suggests single family origins. In some cases, nicknames are from Norman-French words, such as Papillon (dainty or inconsistent, from butterfly) or Foljambe (deformed leg).
Names deriving from plants and animals are almost certainly nicknames.
Names deriving from plants and animals are almost certainly nicknames - such as Catt, Sparrow and Oak - but may also be location names or even occupations. But most nicknames come from colour, complexion or form - names such as Armstrong and Strongitharm, Heavyside, Quickly, Slowman, Smallman, Fairfax and Blunt (fair-haired).
Other examples of nicknames derive from personal or moral qualities, for example Good, Goodchild, Thoroughgood, Allgood, Toogood and Goodenough. Other examples are Joly, Jolibois and Joliffe, or Kennard (royal-brave). And some - such as Puttock (greedy) or Coe (jackdaw) - show contempt or ridicule.
The surname Blake may seem fairly straightforward but there are two derivations. Firstly as a variation of Black, a descriptive name for someone of dark appearance, and secondly originating as the Old English word, blac meaning wan or fair - two completely opposite meanings. In Wiltshire, the surname Black is not a common one, greatly outnumbered by Blake.
Many baptismal or Christian names have become surnames without any change. A son may have acquired his surname by adding -s or -son to his father's name. The first method was favoured in the south of England and in the western border counties (where the practice was later copied by the Welsh), while the second was preferred in the northern half of England and lowland Scotland, and was a late development. Occasionally, -son was added to a mother's names, as in Mallinson and Tillotson - both from Matilda.
The son of William might therefore end up with the surname Williams or Williamson
The small pool of personal names meant that pet forms and shortened versions were commonly used, and that many of these nicknames became surnames. Some were rhyming forms, such as Dobson, Hobson and Robson (based on the pet form of Robert). Others were pet forms with -kin, -cock or -ot added.
The son of William might therefore end up with the surname Williams or Williamson, but other possibilities include Will, Willett, Wills, Willis, Willimott, Wilkins, Wilkinson, Wilcox or Wilcockson. Other baptismal or personal names may have been extended to become a form of nickname, for example Littlejohn, Micklejohn (largest/eldest-John), Prettejohn (handsome John), Applejohn (orchard John) and Brownjohn.
In Wales the 'patronymic' system of taking the father's forename as the child's surname, therefore a change at each generation, continued in some communities until the 17th century. Evan Griffith could be the son of Griffith Rhys, who was himself the son of Rhys Howell - this being written as Evan ap Griffith ap Rhys ap Howell. 'Ap' meaning 'son of,' just as with Up-, O'-, Fitz-, Witz- and Sky-.
Over time, names such as Ap Rhys, Ap Howell and Ap Richard could become liaised to become Preece or Price, Powell and Pritchard.
Research Your Surname and Your Family Tree by Dr Graham Davis (2010)
First Name Variants by A Bardsley (Federation of Family History Societies, 2003)
Homes of Family Names in Great Britain by HB Guppy (Clearfield, 2005)
The Oxford Names Companion by P Hanks (OUP, 2002)
Family Names and Family History by D Hey (Hambledon and London, 2000)
Dictionary of First Names by D Pickering (Penguin, 2004)
The Origin of English Surnames by PH Reaney and RM Wilson (Routledge, 1991)
A Dictionary of English Surnames by PH Reaney (OUP, 2005)
Surnames in Genealogy: A New Approach by G Redmonds (Federation of Family History Societies, 2002)
Searching for Surnames by J Titford (Countryside Books, 2002)
Paul Blake is a professional genealogy and local-history lecturer. A regular contributor to the Family-History press, he is also joint author, with Audrey Collins, of Who was your Granny's Granny? (Foulsham, 2003). He is a past chairman of the Society of Genealogists, and currently serves on the executive committee of the Federation of Family History Societies.