UK Surname Origins

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.


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.

The top 50 Most popular surnames in the United Kingdom in 1996 were the following:

Name Meaning
1. Smith Occupational name
2. Jones Family name, son of John
3. Williams Family name, son of William
4. Brown Nickname, colour of hair or complexion
5. Taylor Occupational name
6. Davies Family name, son of David
7. Wilson Family name, son of William
8. Evans Family name, son of Evan (Welsh form of John)
9. Thomas Family name, son of Thomas
10. Johnson Family name, son of John
11. Roberts Family name, son of Robert
12. Walker Occupational name, cloth dresser
13. Wright Occupational name, maker of machinery or objects
14. Robinson Family name from a diminutive of Robert
15. Thompson Family name, son of Thomas
16. White Nickname, colour of hair
17. Hughes Family name, son of Hugh
18. Hall Local name, lived near a large house
19. Edwards Family name, son of Edward
20. Green Local name, lived near village green
21. Martin Family name, son of Martin
22. Wood Local name, lived near a wood
23. Harris Family name, son of Harry
24. Lewis Family name, son of Louis
25. Clarke Occupational name, scribe or secretary
26. Jackson Family name, son of Jacob or Jack (pet form of John)
27. Clark Occupational name, scribe or secretary
28. Turner Occupational name, maker of small wooden objects
29. Hill Local name, lived near a hill
30. Scott Local name, a Gaelic speaker, from Scotland
31. Moore Local name, lived near a moor
32. Cooper Occupational name, maker of wooden vessels
33. Morris Family name, son of Maurice
34. Ward Occupational name, a watchman or guard
35. King Nickname, a person who acted in a haughty manner
36. Watson Family name, son of Watt (Walter)
37. Baker Occupational name, a baker
38. Harrison Family name, son of Harry
39. Morgan Family name, son of Morien (an old Welsh personal name)
40. Young Family name, son of identically named father
41. Allen Family name, son of Alan (an old Celtic personal name)
42. Mitchell Family name, son of Michel
43. Phillips Family name, son of Phillip
44. James Family name, son of James
45. Bell Occupational name, bellfounder or bellringer
46. Campbell Nickname, crooked mouth
47. Lee Local name, lived near a pasture
48. Parker Occupational name, gamekeeper
49. Kelly Nickname, Gaelic for troublesome
50. Davis Family name, son of David

All the major groups of names are represented here. It is interesting to note that names we think of as typically British are often derived from given names that were popular 800 years ago when the Normans appeared on these shores with names such as Louis, Michel and Maurice.

In 1851 a census of the United Kingdom was taken and the top 50 were listed. Clarke, Allen, Phillips, James. Lee and Kelly are the only surnames that feature in 1996 but were not included in the list for 1851 which demonstrates that the top fifty out of an estimated half a million different surnames in the United Kingdom remain amazingly consistent over the years and have probably remained little altered for generations.

Did you know?

Medieval man had a strong sense of irony and would often attribute a seemingly contradictory sobriquet. Think of Little John (or John Little) the giant companion of Robin Hood. This would also result in him naming a large man Small and a short man Long!

The History of Surnames

It is quite common to find that a person or an institution has misspelled your name on a bill or a letter or even when reading it back to you. This is something that most of us find most annoying – especially if the name is fairly common. It occurs in the main because the person who enters it or reads it to you has their own idea of how it should be spelled. Almost every name has typical misspellings or pronunciation errors associated with it. For example there is an old Kent name of Vinson which has nothing to do with the son of anyone at all let alone a man called “Vin”. It in fact is a variant of Vincent a fairly common Anglo-French name borne by a 3rd century Spanish martyr.

So many names end in “son” that when the name Vincent is subjected to the soft consonant sounds of the southern rural accent it sounds more like Vinson than Vincent. Out of this mix-up the name Vinson was created and exists to this day. It has evolved from another name by this very common process.

When you come to research your own surname’s history you may in fact find it difficult to even find it with the same spelling as it has today. Not only may it have been spelled very differently hundreds of years ago but you may even know of somebody in your family’s past who changed the spelling of the name. You are likely to find several different spelling and must never fall into the trap of thinking that a particular family is not your own because the name is slightly different. Language changes constantly and carelessness and illiteracy multiply the ways in which a name might be spelled. Often in the middle ages a man might not even know himself how it was spelled, only the way it sounded. It might be left to the town clerk or the visiting tax collector to spell it the way it sounded to him.

We cannot always blame our ancestors for these changes in our names over the years. In these days of Received Pronunciation and BBC English we tend to forget that before national education systems were put in place the spelling of words and names was variable. Furthermore there was not really a right or wrong way to spell. There was a sort of consistency regionally and perhaps amongst groups of academics and specialists like Dr Johnson who compiled his famous Dictionary and others; but to spell things differently was not frowned upon as it might be today.

What changed this to a great degree were the Education Acts which set up National Schools throughout the nineteenth century and in particular the 1870 Education Act which provided for genuine mass education on a scale never seen before.

Even after this standardisation people have changed their names from the embarrassing to less comic options. For example John Cheese whose name meant a maker or seller of cheese became John Cleese, a name that has no meaning. Bottoms become Bothams.

Often names were changed for political or social reasons. A family may have wished to cover up associations which at the time might have caused them problems. We need only look at the surname Mountbatten, a translation of Battenberg, of German origin. Earl Mountbatten who died in 1979 was a grandson of Queen Victoria, son of Prince Louis of Battenberg and uncle of Prince Charles. The surname was changed in 1917 as a result of anti-German feeling among the population. Importantly for the evolution of surnames, and this is generally true, there is no prospect of going back to the former name even if feelings amongst the populace change.

Sometimes there may have been an alteration for the sake of simplification and those endings previously spoken of which were relational and stated this was the “son of” were dropped and Johnson shortened to Johns and even back to John, becoming then a surname in its own right. Occupational and locational beginnings and endings might be dropped also. The Gaelic ‘ua’ meaning ‘grandson of ‘ was changed to ‘O’, but was then dropped by many Irish emigrants in the 19th century, so you should always look for Connor as well as O’Connor in census returns and other indexes.

Long complicated names change and become fixed in their new version. Thus the name Featherstonehaugh is pronounced Fanshaw and Cholmondeley becomes Chumley. In these days of high literacy rates there is less likelihood that the longer version will evolve into the more refined and literal name but it is never impossible because a name is just what a person chooses to call themselves so that every one of us has the power to decide how we spell and pronounce our names. This is a basic right that remains ours to exercise. We can abandon one name and take on another completely different one perfectly legally.

Evolution of surnames is like Chinese Whispers!

It is something like Chinese whispers. The game where a phrase is corrupted into a completely different sentence as it is passed on from one person to another. Take the name Farrar for example, a Yorkshire name for a smith or a worker in iron. It comes ultimately from the Latin ferrum meaning iron. This surname has recorded changes in the following order: Farrier, Ferrier, Ferrer, Ferrar, Farrer, Farrah, Farrey, Farrow, Faro, Pharrow, Pharoah, Varah, Varey, Varrow and Vairow!

Unexpected variants:

  • Adburgham for Abram
  • Andred for Underwood
  • Blood for (ap)Lloyd
  • Forker for Farquhar
  • Coward for Cowherd
  • Edgar for Adair
  • Hewitt for Howard
  • Giggle for Jekyll
  • Nevitt for Knight
  • Laverick for Lark
  • Learned for Leonard
  • Mallet for Mallard
  • Maskell for Marshall
  • Nutter for Nothard
  • Pertuce for Pertwee
  • Shreeve for Sherrif
  • Tipple for Theobold
  • Wymer for Gymer

It can be seen that unusual or even comic names had an earlier existence as a fairly widespread or well known surname but have evolved through misinterpretation into something completely different and have added to the immense variety of our stock of surnames.

Topographical Surnames

Topographic surnames are those names adopted by or given to a person which were taken from a feature in the landscape in which they lived or where they came from. They fall into two broad categories. The first of these refers to people named after the natural features that medieval name would have seen all around him in nature. People would be named after the Hill or Dale where their dwelling was located.

We are concerned here with the second group of topographical surnames which are those named after a feature in the built environment. These are structures erected by medieval man in his quest to adapt the environment to his needs, to provide shelter or protection or to trade and worship. In the case of surnames such as House, for example, this might have indicated a person who lived in something rather more significant than the modest cottages and huts that most of the population occupied. It might have been the most significant building in the village. It might also indicate a householder rather than a tenant. Variants include Houseman and Hoose. An extension of this would be Housley made up of House and Lee (a clearing in a wood) which would mean a person who lived in a house in the wood.

Somebody who lived near a Bridge might also be Bridgeman, Briggs or Bridger. Given the vulnerability to the environment that man faced in the Middle Ages the building and maintenance of bridges was one of the three major feudal obligations. Its importance can be measured when we consider that the other two were bearing arms and maintaining fortifications.

Care must be taken when deciding whether a name is topographical or occupational in origin. Sometimes a man might be called House because he worked there. Similarly Bridgeman might be so named because he not only lived nearby but probably collected the tolls from travellers as well.

Religion played a huge part in the life of medieval man. Stone crosses were erected by the roadside and in market places and people who dwelt nearby took the name Cross or where forms of Old English still persisted, the name Crouch from cruc, the word for cross. Church and Churchill would refer to a person who lived near a place of worship as is the rarer Churchyard. Living near a feudal lord’s fortified buildings would result in a person being known as Castle. Wall or Wallbank would refer to somebody living near to such a structure.

All these structures might be grouped together into villages, towns and cities and a person might then be designated as one who came from these previously named places. Thus we find persons called Birmingham, London, Gillingham, Chester. York etc.

Their origins as smaller settlements can be seen with the use of the suffix for hamlet or settlement, ‘ham’ in Old English. The suffix ‘chester’ comes from another Old English term for the many forts that the Romans built throughout the length and breadth of the country and is found in names such as Woodchester, Chichester and Rochester, all given to people and families who came from those towns.

Man also had an effect on nature by means of cultivation and altering the landscape by making Orchards and Groves and building Barrows as well as spiritual and religious constructions. Agriculture although not built environment is quite separate from natural features and is included here as it represents changes made by man on his surroundings such as the clearance of land for pasture or cultivation.

Topographical features refer to buildings and places that show the effect of man on the natural landscape. They often became the surnames our ancestors chose or were given.

Name Meaning
Abbey lived by an abbey or priest’s house
Acker, Ackerman someone who lived by a plot of cultivated land
Acton from the towns of that name in Middlesex and Shropshire
Agate lived near a gate
Backhouse from bake house
Badger a village in Shropshire
Badham a place in West Midlands
Bailey, Bales, Bayley lived near the outermost wall of a castle
Barnes a person who lived near a barn or granary
Barrow lived by a burial mound
Berry, Bury a fortified place
Birmingham from that city
Bridge lived near a bridge
Church lived near a church
Churchill a place in Devon, Oxfordshire and Somerset
Coates from cott, a humble shelter
Cross, Crouch, Croucher, Crouchman lived near a cross
Downton From the town on the hill (Old English for hill is dun)
Drayton from various towns by that name
Dyke lived near an ancient earthworks
Eckersley from the town of that name (Eckhardt’s settlement in the wood)
Eggleston from towns of that name (Ecgwulf’s enclosure or tun)
Endecott lived at the end of a row of cottages
Fallow land left uncultivated
Field lived near a field
Fieldhouse lived in a house in pasture land
Fordham from the village by the ford
Foyle lived near a pit or man made hollow
Furlong length of a field
Garner lived near a granary
Garth an enclosed area or yard
Gates lived near a road or gate
Gillingham from that town
Greenaway a grassy path
Greenhouse someone who lived in a house by the village green
Hall lived in or near a large house
Hardcastle an impregnable castle
Hatch, Hatcher a gate or entrance to a forest
Hathaway a path across a heath
Haw, Hawe someone who lived near an enclosure
Hay, Hayman lived near an enclosure
Hayhurst an enclosure on a wooded hill
Hilton from the settlement on the hill
House lived in a house rather than a cottage
Howes dwelt by a barrow
Hyde farmed a “hide” of land (about 100 acres)
Kershaw Church near a grove
Lampit a loam pit
Langton, Longton long town
Lee, Lees cultivated land
Loader lived by a road or man made channel (Middle English loden to lead)
Malthus lived near a malthouse
Meynell an isolated dwelling
Mill lived near the village mill
Monkhouse lived or worked in a monastery
Newbold lived in a new dwelling
Newhouse a new building
Newey new enclosure
Orchard lived by an orchard
Ormiston Orme’s settlement
Overall lived in the upper hall
Park, Parke lived near the landowner’s hunting ground
Parsonage lived in or near the parson’s house
Pickles lived near a small field (Middle English pighel)
Pound lived near an animal enclosure
Port lived near a gate to a town, harbour or market
Prescott the priest’s cottage
Rigby lived at a farm or settlement on a ridge
Rochester from that town
Rowe lived by a hedge or in a row of houses
Ryland lived near a field where rye was grown
Schofield a hut in a field
Scholes lived in a rough hut or shelter
Sell, Seller lived in a rough hut made for animals
Somerscales summer shelter
South lived in the south of the settlement
Southgate lived near the south gate
Stables lived near the stables
Staples lived near a boundary post
Titchener, Tickner, Tichner lived near a crossroads (Old English twicen, two)
Town,Toner came from a village rather than the country
Townshend, Townend lived at the extremity of the village or town
Travers lived near a bridge
Tye lived near a common pasture
Upton living in the upper part of the village
Vine lived near a vineyard
Wall near a stone built wall

Real Lives:

Church: Did Charlotte Church’s ancestor sing in the choir?

Churchill: Sir Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace in 1875. His forebear John Churchill was 1st Duke of Marlborough and Blenheim was built for him by a grateful nation after his exploits in wars against the French in the 18th century. The family came from Dorset where their original home would have been much humbler!

Monkhouse: The late Bob Monkhouse’s humour may not have been appreciated in the monastery where his ancestor lived or worked!

Prescott: John Prescott may be a political firebrand but his ancestor may have been a Priest!

How to identify whether you have a name of topographic origin.

Firstly it may well be on the list above so look closely and consider variants that look or sound like those in the list. Do you have a name that is the same as an existing city, town or village? You may also have surname that refers to a building of some type. This too identifies your name a topographic in origin.

If this fails then look closely at your surname and see if it contains elements that reveal its meaning. These will be words and parts of words that are of ancient origin and have been passed down the centuries from the languages first spoken by the inhabitants of these islands. They were used to describe the structures they built or the agricultural features they introduced which formed the medieval landscape they lived in. Many of these are still understood by us today because they form crucial a part of our cultural heritage.

The Old English word tun originally meant a fence and then an enclosure but it went on to describe a settlement, presumably behind a protective fence, and in the Old English period (500-1000 A.D.) was already used to describe a village and then a town. So if you have the elements tun, ton or town in your surname then it is probably topographical in origin. Examples: Tunstall, Upton, Townsend.

Another common Old English element we all comprehend is the word ham which was our ancestor’s word for homestead and often appears after the name of the original builder and resident. So we find that the homesteads of Gydla, Billa and Beornmund becoming Gillingham, Billingham and Birmingham.

Other elements to look out for are:

  • bold, a dwelling house
  • bury, a fortified place
  • hay, hey, an enclosure
  • park, large enclosed area for hunting
  • worth, a settlement


Surnames that are derived from nicknames form the broadest category of surnames. They are fascinating because they show us that the mind of Medieval man worked very much like our own. There are descriptive names like Black or Brown but also more inventive and humorous creations. The people who gave these names to others had an earthy sense of humour and the nicknames given to our ancestors also tell us something about the original bearer of the surname that we might never have otherwise known.

The more typical nicknames describe the physical appearance of the person. A dark haired or swarthy person would be named Black. Somebody pale skinned or white haired would be named White. The natural extension of this would be to point out a particular feature such as Whitehead for somebody with a shock of white hair for example.

Some nicknames were complimentary like Fair or Fairchild, Good and Trueman, which all speak well of the original bearer. But some less than desirable characters have bequeathed surnames such as Sly and Smellie to their unfortunate descendants for ever after.

Medieval man was very blunt and straight forward in this respect and seemed to be pretty indifferent to the feelings of others even if they were lame or deformed. A crippled person might be called Cripwell. If they also had a hunchback they might be called Crome, Crimp or Crook. The names look and sound so similar because they are all derived in some way from the Middle English words crome meaning bent and crypel, to creep. There was no political correctness as far as medieval man was concerned and he was quite forthright about drawing attention to these distinguishing physical attributes.

Sometimes, especially in a small community it may have been necessary only to point out a particular part of the body for everybody to know who you were talking about. Just saying Foot, Hand or Head would be enough to recognise a person with a peculiarity or deformity in that part of the body. Someone who walked oddly might be called Sheepshanks, Cruikshanks or just Shanks.

A person who liked to wear big boots might be called Boot. If he wore a cape he might be called Cape. Other items of clothing which gave rise to surnames are Capron, Capper, Hood and Hatt.

The way in which a person behaved might be described and attributed by likening that person to an animal. So we find surnames such as Bird, Crow and Sparrow for quiet, raucous and chirpy people respectively. Someone aggressive and threatening might be called a Bullock or in the north of England he might be known as Stott from the Middle English for a Steer. Animal characteristics were attributed to men called Fox who was cunning, Stagg who was strong and showy and even Mutton who was sheep-like!

It may be that their temperament might be directly alluded to as in Gentle, Meek or Mild in contrast to Loud, Wild and Tempest, a nickname for a person with a blustery temperament. There were Proud men and Merry men as well as Sadd and Hardy individuals.

Anything out of the ordinary might give rise to a nickname in medieval times just as it does to today. Nicknames arise from any difference in appearance or manner that the bearer might display or from an event or incident that brought him fame or infamy.

Particular occasions may be commemorated by a nickname, though we may never know what these events were. Surnames such as Wedlock and Death celebrate important things that happened in an individual’s life and Triplett an unusual birth, especially should all the children survive. The surname Chance perhaps comes from someone who had survived an accident by a remarkable piece of luck.

Wealth and standing might make a person stand out. Farthing, Halfpenny and Penny no doubt referred to the poorer end of the social scale whilst Shilling and Crown were somewhat more affluent. Clearly not all the Kings, Princes, Dukes, Earls and Bishops today are descended from people who held these exalted positions and it seems likely that their ancestors probably played these parts in pageants or plays or were being mocked for their airs and graces.

Seasonal names are fairly common nicknames and became the surnames Summer and Winter, which may describe a person’s personality, sunny or frosty, but more likely the time of year in which he was born. This gives rise to names such as Christmas, Noel and Yule for those born on Christmas Day. The Midwinter festival was indeed the time to be Jolly since this surname has the same origin as Yule, jolif , in Old French which gives rise to the name Joliffe as well. January and Janaways commemorate birthdates and February gives us the names Feveral and Feaveryear. There are many other surnames from the months of the year in which a person was born or perhaps found as an orphan such as March, April and May.

Just as we do today medieval man delighted in creating new names as nicknames. He it was who added the cock to Alcock, Johncock, Hancock, Mycock and Hiscock. Cock was a general nickname for a strutting young blade of the parish and would be added to Alan, John, Hann, Michael and Henry to form these names. Playing on words was common at the time and created pet forms of names such as Dodge aand Hodge for Roger and Dobb and Dobbin from Robin which in turn was a pet form of Robert. Walter gave us Watt, Watkin and Watling. Kidd come from Kit which was short for Christopher but William may claim the most wide ranging shortened and altered nicknames from Wilcock, Wilmott, Wilkin, Willett and Wyatt through to Gilham and Gillett from the original French spelling Guillaume which came over the Channel with William the Conqueror.

Did you know?

Names tell of customs and pastimes and special days such as Loveday, a day set aside for the villagers to settle their differences and patch up relationships with their enemies. It was not all hard work for medieval man, there were Sabbaths and saints days to celebrate and, in order to recover from these there were wake days which became weekdays, the days in between the feasts! A person born on such a day might be called Hayday or Halliday. King was a name for a person who played that part in the plays that entertained the people on feast days of which there were very many, up to sixty in a year. Green might refer to the man who played the Green man in the May Day celebrations. Lord refers to the person who played the Lord of Misrule in the parish Yuletide festivities. Postle refers to a person who played one of the apostles in a play or pageant.

Bawdy names:

We take the name of England’s foremost dramatist for granted, but William Shakespeare’s surname was not only the nickname for a belligerent person but also for an exhibitionist. So to was Wagstaff, an obscene nickname for a medieval ‘flasher’ as was Waghorn. Horn sometimes referred to a husband whose wife was having an affair with another man. Longstaff was well endowed and Hardstaff had a more or less permanent erection, or would have it believed to be so. Spendlove was free with his affections as was Lovelace, originally Loveless who could not form a lasting relationship. Shacklady was a bawdy nickname for a man suspected of having an affair with a lady higher than him in social rank.

Name Meaning
Agnew meek or pious from Old French agneau, lamb
Ayer heir to a title or fortune
Ball a short fat person
Bass a lowly or short man
Bay chestnut or auburn hair
Beal handsome from Old French bel, fair
Bean friendly, amiable
Beard having a beard (most men were clean shaven)
Begg small from Gaelic beag, small
Belcher beautiful face from Old French bel chere
Benbow an archer
Breakspear successful warrior
Breeze an irritating person from Middle English for a gad fly
Coe a jackdaw
Carless a carefree person
Chew a talkative or thieving person
Chubb fat and sluggish like the fish
Cockayne idle dreamer
Doggett abusive term from a diminutive of dog
Dixie for a chorister from Latin dixi, I have spoken
Doe mild and gentle
Dolittle name for a lazy man
Dragon standard bearer in a procession Old French for snake, the shape of the banner
Early manly, noble, like an earl
Eagle sharp-eyed
Edmead humble from Old English eadmede, easy
Fairfax having beautiful long hair
Fairweather a sunny temperament
Farrant grey from Old English meaning ‘iron grey’
Fear a sociable person, from Old English feare, comrade
Fitt a polite and amiable person
Frost someone with an icy unbending disposition
Fry small
Gandy wearer of gloves (gante in Old French)
Grant tall, large from Old French grand, large
Gray grey hair
Grewcock tall and scrawny, from Middle English grue, a crane
Guyler treacherous, guileful
Hardiman brave or foolhardy
Hare a swift runner
Hasty impetuous
Hendy pleasant and kind
Idle lazy
Jay a showy person
Joy a cheerful person
Justice fair minded
Kay left handed, Danish kei, left
Lamb meek and inoffensive
Large generous
Lawless licentious
Leppard stealthy
Lightbody cheerful and busy
Lightfoot fast runner
Little a small man or, ironically, a large man!
Littley small eyes
Longfellow tall, good companion
Makepeace a person skilled at negotiation
Mallett an unfortunate person, Old French maleit, accursed
Mildmay tame, gentle
Moody courageous, arrogant
Moult a bald man
Nice foolish, simple
Nightingale somebody with a fine voice
Nunn a pious and demure man
Oliphant a large ponderous person
Pace even tempered
Pardoe nickname from the oath par Dieu, by God
Pate a bald man
Peel a tall thin man. Anglo Norman French for a stake
Penny a wealthy man
Pratt a clever man
Pook a goblin, evil spirit
Pretty fine or handsome
Prince a title won in a contest of skill
Pye talkative or thievish (from magpie)
Quarrell a trouble maker
Rank powerful, emotional from Old English ranc proud, rebellious
Read red hair
Revell a boisterous person
Root cheerful, from Middle English rote, glad
Rouse red haired
Rutter an unscrupulous person, from Old French routier, a robber
Smart brisk, active
Smillie a person smelly even by medieval standards
Snell quick, lively
Snow someone with very white hair
Speed fortunate, lucky
Springer a lively person
Squirrel resembling a squirrel
Stack a large man like a haystack
Swan pure
Todd cunning as a fox
Trick a cunning person
Turtle mild and gentle
Twigg a thin person
Vaisey cheerful
Venture bold, adventurous
Viggars strong and lusty
Wale well liked
Ware careful
Warr a soldier or a belligerent person

Famous People

Name Meaning
John Snow has very white hair!!
Carole Smillie may be squeaky clean but her ancestor certainly was not!!
David Frost the right name for an interrogative interviewer?
Phyllis Dixey a pioneer striptease artist in the 1940s
Danny Grewcock English rugby forward, anything but scrawny!
Stephen Fry his name means small. He is huge!

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.

Patronymic Names

In the name of the father: Patronymics.

A great number of the surnames we use today came from a person’s father’s given name. These are called Patronymic Surnames. In their simplest form they just present the father’s name. For example John is a surname as in the artist Augustus John, so too is Johns and more obviously Johnson which is one of the most common of English surnames. All mean “son of John”. However there are also names that have been formed from the mother’s name such as Megson, Margery or Hanna. These are called Metronymic Surnames and the first bearer was probably the son of a widow or an heiress in her own right.

The Anglo-Norman French “Fitz” was added by the Normans and by their followers in both England and Ireland. It was often bestowed by monarchs on their illegitimate sons. One of William IVs ten illegitimate children by a Mrs Jordan (a leading actress of the day) was George Fitzclarence, Earl of Munster in Ireland. Fitzroy means literally “son of the king” in Anglo-Norman French and was the name given by Charles II to his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy (1663-90). Fitzroy’s mother was The Duchess of Cleveland. He was fatally wounded at the siege of Cork. His descendants included Robert Fitzroy, the Captain of Darwin’s famous ship the Beagle on his voyage to the Galapagos Islands.

Everyone is familiar with the Scottish and Irish Mac that goes before the ancestor’s name and is equivalent to “son” in England and the O’ which means grandson or “descendant of” in Ireland. But whereas in England and Wales children inherited these names from their parents, in Gaelic speaking Scotland and Ireland this was not always the case. Tribes of families or even just groups of people living in the same locality, gathered together to make war upon each other in the glens of Scotland and throughout the length of Ireland. When they were drawn together in this way they would take the name of the chieftain who led them into battle even if there was no close blood relationship.

Taking the father’s name is the typical format for surnames for the Gaelic peoples of both Scotland and Ireland. At the time when surnames were formed the Scottish and Irish were one Gaelic people. The famines in Ireland in the 19th century and the Highland clearances forced whole populations to emigrate throughout the English speaking world taking their Anglicized surnames like MacDonald, Mc Kenzie and O’Neil with them. There are now more Gaelic speakers in Eastern Canada than in Scotland and people, language and surnames have all found a new home.

Did you know?

Two American fast food giants have patronymic surnames. Everybody is familiar with the McDonalds burger chain and with the surname. Richard and Maurice Mc Donald converted their barbecue drive-in with car hops into the worlds first Mc Donald’s limited menu, self-service drive-in in 1948 in San Bernadino, California. Colonel Harland Sanders, born September 9 1890 of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame also had a hereditary surname. His surname means son of Sander which is a medieval form of Alexander.

It is not always obvious that a surname is patronymic in origin. For example Murphy, is a name often used to personify all Irishmen and it is a well founded choice in this respect. The descendants of Murchadh were originally called O’Murchadh until the name was Anglicised to Murphy. It originally meant “sea warrior” so it is appropriate that Murphys have spread so far and wide throughout the English speaking world. There are 6000 subscribers in the Irish telephone directories, 1500 in London, 900 in Chicago and 700 in Manhattan.

Not so many people are aware that there is a Welsh equivalent to Mac and “son”. This is “Ab” or “Ap” which goes before the given name Rhys to form Price, Owen to form Bowen and Richard to form Prichard for example. Nowadays the Welsh have dropped the first letter. Before this a person might be known as Richard ap Owen for example. Richard’s son Rhys would be Rhys ap Richard. When surnames became fixed Rhys Prichard would pass on his surname. Some of the most numerous of British surnames are the group of Welsh patronymics which include Jones, son of John and its variant Evan which gives us Evans as well as Thomas and of course Williams.

The Welsh chose surnames almost exclusively from there father’s name, and since so few Christian names were in use, the number of surnames are similarly few. This gives rise to what seem to be whole villages filled with identically surnamed but unrelated families. The logical step adopted by the Welsh was to add another identifying name such as Jones the milk, Jones the smith and Jones the ferry for example. It might have been easier to have done this the first time around!

Surnames derived from the father are common throughout the world. These name endings are used in other countries: Danes and Norwegians: – sen, Finns: – nen, Greeks: – poulos, Spaniards: – ez, Poles:- wiecz, Russians: – ov, German: – ing or – er.

Here are ten common Scottish names from the father. They are all son of (Mac) added to a personal given name.

Name Meaning
MacDonald son of Donald, a world ruler
Mackenzie son of Coinnich, a comely man
Mackay son of a man named Aodha, a pagan fire god
Mcleod son of Leoid. an ugly man
Mclean son of a servant of St John
McMillan son of a bald man
McIntosh son of an Toisich. a leader
McGregor son of Gregory
McIntyre son of an tSaoir, a carpenter (that spelling is correct)
McDougall son of Dougall, a black stranger

Ten common Irish names from the father

Name Meaning
Byrne descendant of Bran, a raven
Ryan descendant of Ryan. The meaning of this name is unknown
O’Connor descendant of Conchobhair, a name with the elements ‘dog’ and ‘desiring’
Murphy descendant of a person named sea warrior
O’Malley descendant of the nobleman
Malone descendant of the devotee of St John
McCall son of Cathmhaoil, a battle chief
O’Neill descendant of Neill, a champion
O’Sullivan descendant of Suileabhain, meaning dark eyed
O’Brien son of Brian, an eminient person

Ten Welsh names from the father

Name Meaning
Jones son of John
Evans son of Evan, Ifan
Williams son of William
Price son of Rhys, fiery warrior
Powell son of Hywel, eminent
Prichard son of Richard
Thomas son of Thomas
Pugh son of Hugh
Jenkins son Jenkin, a diminutive of John
Bowen son of Owen, from Eugene, well born

Ten names from females

Name Meaning
Margery son of Margery or Margaret, a pearl
Hanna son of Hannah or Anna, God favoured child
Maggs son of Margaret
Megson son of Margaret
Jeeves son of Geneveive, woman of the people
Alison son of Alice, a noble woman
Annis son of Ann, a pure woman
Catlin son of Catherine or Kathleen, pure
Grace son of Grace
Dyott son of Dennis, a female name in medieval England

Ten English names from the father

Name Meaning
Johnson son of John
Thompson son of Thomas
Williams son of William
Davis son of David
Adams, Atkins, Atkinson son of Adam
Hodg(kin)son son of Roger
Pearce, Pearson, Peters son of Peter
Watkins, Watson son of Walter
Wilson son of William
Harris, Harrison son of Henry