Great Britain Research
Stephen   Thomas
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Great Britain Research    Stephen Thomas

UK Professional Family History Research

What’s in a name?

Different types of Surname

The introduction of surnames throughout the British Isles was not uniform. Ireland already had some inherited names based on tribal loyalties before the Normans invaded. So did the highland Scots, but the lowland Scottish followed the English pattern of adopting a fixed inherited second name a little later and the Welsh not until the 16th century, a process that was still continuing in the 1700s.

The practice of using a Surname was begun in Britain by Norman gentry who wished to set themselves apart from the conquered Anglo-Saxons. They were following a fashion begun in the south of France and Venice and they also wanted to identify people so they could be sure they were taxed and carried out their duties. It must be remembered that the Normans were an occupying force at this time who brutally subdued the population. Previous to this time the feudal system meant that families and thus the people were known to their local Lords of the Manor so there was no pressing need for surnames.

Inherited names trickled down through the social structure, first used by the nobility and the wealthy landowners and then the merchants and commoners. The first permanent names were those of barons and landowners who took their names from the manors and lands that they held. These names became fixed because these lands were inherited. Status seeking middle and working class then imitated the practices of the nobility.

As populations grew in the city and Government came to depend more and more on written records, personal names were clearly no longer sufficient to identify people for social and administrative reasons and the practice of taking a surname spread to the countryside.

The handing on of a surname has become a matter of pride, but why a particular name was chosen by or given to an individual can only be speculated upon. They have, though, come down to us in various ways. They have come from the name of an ancestor, his job or calling, his surroundings or because of a particular nickname commemorating a particular trait or incident in his life. Most surnames have evolved from four sources which then divide into differing types.

Family Names

These are generally accepted to be the oldest form of surname and are derived from a given name. However, they were the last to become fixed and would change at each generation: John’s son William would be known as William Johnson while his son John would be John Williamson. These given names were generally Biblical in origin such as Peter or Paul or Germanic names made up of elements describing desirable qualities such as Richard from ric meaning power and hard meaning brave. Taking on one’s father’s name was the simplest way of distinguishing one John from another. Surnames of this type are found in all European languages and are usually, but not always, comprised of the father’s name and an additional prefix or suffix. So we find in Gaelic mac, Welsh ap, ab, Norman French fitz and suffixes such as son or the simple s as in Robertson or Roberts. Others are Williamson, Jackson etc. When you see names with these additions you can be sure they are almost certainly from people originally named after their father although some may have been named after their grandfather or their mother in cases such as Megson. Other, rarer names record family connections such as Neame which means uncle or Ayer, the heir to a title or fortune.

Local Names

There are two main types of local names: the first of these are those taken from the natural environment that medieval man found all around him so that John who lived at the base of a hill would be called John Underhill one who lived near a landmark tree might be John Oak. Places and habitations are the creation of man and they form the second category of local names whether they come from a particular building and were known as House or from a city which grew out of a settlement such as Birmingham or York which eventually became cities. Some people even took there names from regions and countries such as Fleming, Welsh or France.

Occupational names

Many surnames are quite obviously occupational and recall the trade carried out by your ancestor. Indeed any dictionary of surnames is also a list of all the common trades of this country in the Middle Ages, many of which are now extinct or rarely encountered. They fall into broad categories such as agricultural, (Farmer, Herd) manufacturing (Smith, Wright) and trade (Merchant, Mercer). There are other similar names involving status and the roles of supporting and serving staff which come into this category such as Abbott, Clark, Squire, Bond (peasant farmer). Since almost every village would have its own Smith and Miller it stands to reason that identically named persons in one place were not necessarily related to those in another.


Surnames from nicknames or anecdotes commemorate ancestors who stood out from the community in some way. They may have been involved in some memorable event, now perhaps obscured by the passage of time or by a personal peculiarity or tendency. Also other names were shortened or varied in the case of an individual and this set them aside from other villagers. These form the broadest and most miscellaneous class of surnames. Nicknames from physical attributes might be Longfellow, Large or Small. A shy man might be Dove, one who was cunning might be Fox and a gentle person Lamb or Gentle. Physical features might give rise to names such as Brown, Black or Whitehead all describing hair or skin colouring. Deformities might be alluded to with names such as Foot or Hand and events commemorated as in the cases of Tiplady. Times and seasons of birth also gave rise to names such as Feveryear (February) or Winter.