Surname Origins and Surname Meanings
Everyone has a surname. What origins and meanings do they have? When did people start using them? Why should you have your surname researched?
Not everyone has always had a surname. Once you were simply son of John, or whatever your father’s name happened to be. There were not enough people to require everyone had two names, one was more than enough. You were lucky if you could even write your name let alone two!
An Introduction to Surnames
Surnames first appeared on the scene in Britain when the ruling classes used their location and title to distinguish themselves. You could have been Sir Thomas of Gordon, a Scottish knight or perhaps Sir Thomas of Huntly, an English knight. It would be hard to confuse them. In the common classes as the population increased the amount of people with the same names increased. Nicknames began to play a part in distinguishing between those with the same name – you could be Peter Armstrong, the Peter with the large biceps (or, as per the humour of the day the complete opposite!). When you (Peter Armstrong) had children the villagers would have known your children as the sons and daughters of Peter Armstrong. Leading, eventually, to these nicknames being taken up as surnames. These nicknames (or rather ways to distinguish people with the same surname) were usually taken from:
- The first name of the Father (Patronymic surnames). These include Mac, Mc and O’ which are Scottish and Irish prefixes. They mean ‘son of’. Some examples are: Johnson, McDonald and O’Reilly
- The first name of the Mother (Matronymic surnames). Examples include: Megson, Marriott and Beaton
- Location – that is from the name of the village someone was from. These include: Popham, Hadley and Crampton.
- Occupation – that is from the occupation of the person. Examples are: Geldard, Smith and Cook
- Topographical – from an obvious or unusual feature of the area the person was from or lived. Examples include: Cliff, Bywater and Churchill
- Traits of the Person – these were physical or personality based and were often, as was the humour of the time, the opposite to what the person actually was. Some examples are: Small, Sharpe and Black.
These surnames are then developed over time – their spelling changing due to their being non standard spelling of words in English (and also the use of Latin by priests and the upper classes). One person can have their surname change many times over their life just because each time the person who has written the record (often a priest) things that it sounds like it should be spelt a certain way. Consistency was not considered important. Other reasons for changes is the joining of one surname to another (which is more common today, and the two surnames are usually separated by a hyphen) when two people marry.
Does this Mean Everyone With a Surname are Related?
No! This is a common misconception. If we look back at Johnson – the first name this is derived from, Johannes, was a very common name much like John is today. Therefore there were many sons of Johannes. However, one Johannes may be known as Johannes the Baker, and therefore a son taking the name Baker. It is likely that you are related to surname of the same surname if, when doing family history research, you discover you are both from a similar area and can get back to at least the 1600′s. However, the rarer your surnames the more likely all people with that surname are related!
But how are surnames researched?
Surnames are usually researched by breaking down the surname into its root words. An example is Johnson being broken down into ‘John’ and ‘son’. The broken down parts are then studied etymologically (the study of the history words) by researching the original Latin forms of the parts of the surname. With the example of Johnson we are lucky in that ‘son’ is a word still in use today, and ‘John’ is simply the modern form of the Latin first name Johannes. So, one can conclude that Johnson means ‘the son of John’. To back up this claim records are researched – mentions of the surnames, and it’s many spelling variations, as early as possible. A great reference for this is the Domesday Book, a census taken in 1086 of all landowners. You can clearly see the development of village and surname development in those records. Also the fact that spellings for the same surnames change right throughout depending upon who made the entry!
What Can Surname Research Tell You?
Surname origins and surname meanings research is a great complement to family history research. Many researchers, when researching their own family histories, well get back as far as possible with a surname and then do research into the surname itself. This then gives them an idea of where the family may have come from and occupation a distant male ancestor may have had. Sometimes it even helps with the research! I have heard many a researcher say that they looked into the history of the surname of the ancestor they were researching and that has guided them to look at records in a village nearby where the surname was supposedly from. Surname Origins and Surname Meanings on its own is like reading the end of a novel without reading the middle. You don’t take as much from it as you would have if you read the whole thing!