England Surname Origins (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

What Is a Surname?[edit | edit source]

A surname is a name borne hereditarily by all members of a family usually in male-line descent. In Anglo-Saxon times people had personal or given names only, and owing to the paucity of these forenames had to be distinguished by an additional ‘by-name’ or ‘to-name’ which may have been an occupation, a reference to a parent (called a patronymic), a nickname, or an association with a place. These are the categories that later developed into hereditary surnames.

Legally one’s given name, (and only the first one was recognized), was immutable in former times and one could take, be given or change one’s surname at will. This state of affairs was not quite extinct even in 1859 but by the 19th century surnames had become a more certain identifier, for the simple reason of numbers. There were roughly 600 given names, but some 20,000 surnames (Stevenson). Nowadays it is the combination of given names and surname that distinguish an individual.

British surnames make up only fraction of the surnames used in the English speaking world today. It is also true that the English surnames that the genealogist finds from the advent of parish registers in 1538, came from a wide variety of languages owing to the melting pot history of Britain up to that time. However, these were mainly European languages and, with the exception of Basque, Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian and a few minor ones, these are cognate—they stem from the same Indo-European roots. European countries have, by and large, similar social structures, social histories and social attitudes, and their surnames are remarkably homogenous (Hanks and Hodges 1988). Surnames started to become fixed in most of central and Western Europe at about the same time, that is, from the 12th century onwards. It is therefore not surprising to find that the earlier surname types were all largely patronymic, with differentiating locality names, both being major contributors to the stock of current surnames.

Hereditary surnames were first introduced into England by some of the leading followers of the Conqueror, and most were derived from the place-names of their estates, either in France or in England. These surnames were important to show continuity of ownership of property and were usually only inherited by the eldest son. The possession of a surname became a sign of gentle birth, and ‘it was deemed a disgrace for a gentleman to have but one single name, as the meaner sort had.’ (Guppy)

The custom of applying a man’s by-name to all his children began in the late 12th century and spread slowly, with the manorial classes and the south of England leading the way. The first legal recognition of an hereditary surname is found in 1267; it was de Cantebrigg meaning ‘of Canterbury.’ By 1400 three-quarters of the population are reckoned to have borne hereditary family names, and the process was complete by about 1450 in England. Wales is an exception, in that although they had surnames they were patronymics (derived from the father’s first name) and thus changed each generation.

During this early period a married woman could be known either by her maiden surname or by her husband’s surname with wyf added, as in Mary Walker, wife of Henry Field, or Mary Fieldwyf. The term Mrs. for a married woman was not used until after 1500.

Surnames were important to those needing to secure inheritances of lands, goods or titles; and also were needed by the taxmen to differentiate people of the same first names in one village or town. There were five reasons for the necessity of surnames:

  • Ÿ Population increase
  • Ÿ Growth in urban areas
  • Ÿ Improved record keeping
  • Ÿ Clans and families wanted to be distinguishable from neighbours
  • Ÿ Rise of Christianity with need of surname at baptism

Many of the surnames found in records from the Middle Ages have now died out through failure of the male line. However, augmentation of the stock of surnames have been made by:

  • Ÿ Additions of immigrant surnames and their many variants.
  • Ÿ Corruption of the original surnames into different forms, for example Giles to Gyles, Jiles and Jellis; Woodlock to Woodlake and Wedlock;Rochester to Rogister and Rosseter.
  • Ÿ Use of phonetic spellings. Those who confine their genealogical enquiries to those having exactly the same spelling, insisting that their family has the correct version and that they are not connected to any other spellings, are doomed to a short pedigree.

Derivation of Surnames[edit | edit source]

Surnames are usually classified into four main types, Location Names, which are further divided into Topographical and Habitational, Occupational Names, Nicknames, and Patronymics. A section is devoted to each type and its various subdivisions here.

It is important to note at the outset that some surnames have more than one origin (polygenetic) the occupational ones being obvious examples. Other surnames have such a restricted distribution that they are almost certainly monogenetic. The latter may be derived from one original bearer, perhaps one with a unique given name that founded a patronymic, or from a group of unrelated bearers who dispersed from a certain small place. It is never safe to draw a quick conclusion about the origin of a surname from its modern form. Corruption of sound and spelling has gone on for centuries, and is still continuing. To be reasonably sure of an origin, the line of descent of the family concerned must be traced back as far as possible, and its earliest-found spelling considered. Unrelated families of the same surnames may well trace back to different name-origin groups. It should also be remembered that all people of the same surname do not necessarily descend from a common ancestor, even when at an early date they are found inhabiting the same district. Learning about the possible origin or origins of your surname is fascinating, but as surnames were established in England by 1450 and their parish registers only go back to 1538 at the earliest, most of us cannot establish our surname origin with certainty.

When deciphering the origin of a surname both the geographical and linguistic aspects should be considered. Good modern dictionaries of surnames are supposed to do this, but they have occasional lapses. The historical aspects of colonization of the country have to be tied in with the various languages and linguistic shifts. One should look for etymological details such as early occurrences of the name, and reasoning of how the spelling and pronunciation have changed, as well as geographical distribution studies that should corroborate the linguistic studies. An interesting discussion on the value of linguistic versus distribution studies was carried on in the UK magazine, Family Tree Magazine (Hodgson, Christian). It would seem that the surname Hodgson can be derived from two first names, the Norse Oddgeir and the French Roger, with introduction into England in the 9th-10th and the 11th centuries respectively. Distribution maps based on 16th-17th century parish registers indicate concentration in Cumberland and Westmorland, known areas of Norse invasion. Further documented occurrences in other parts of England between the 11th and 16th centuries could well be derived from French sources.

If the original word upon which a surname is based is no longer current in the language, then the meaning is not obvious today. Examples are Holt for one who lived near a holt, an old name for a wood, Orme from the Old Norse personal name Ormr, and Peel a nickname for a tall, thin man. Other words have changed their meaning over time and now mean something derogatory or at least not so pleasant, thus a person with the surname Gay may well be tempted to change it this century, whereas long ago it was cheerfully accepted.

Location Names[edit | edit source]

Surnames derived from place names, or toponymics, are of two main types, topographical (from a landscape feature) and habitational (from a named location). Place names account for nearly one half of English surnames, but a smaller proportion in Scotland and Ireland, whilst in Wales they are rare.

Topographical Surnames[edit | edit source]

A person who lived at or near a feature of the landscape, or who came from there. The name was usually originally prefixed by:

  • Ÿ At-, Att-, Atte or Atten- meaning ‘at the’ thus Atte well became Atwell, and Atten ash was ‘by the ash tree.’ Others include Attenborough, and Attwood and many have lost the prefix and remain as Field, Heath, Lee, More, Oak, Wells, Wick and so on.
  • Ÿ Included here are a few sign-names such as atte Rose and atte Swan, for those who lived at a house or inn with that name.
  • ŸBy- meaning ‘near’, for example Byfield, Byford, Bygrave (a defensive ditch or dike), Byron (cattle sheds), Bythesea, Bytheway (a main highway), Bywater.
  • Ÿ Under- meaning ‘at the foot or side of’, for example Underhill, Underwood.

Or Suffixed:

  • -er, such asAsher, Bridger, Fielder, and Wooder.

These names reflect the rural landscape and are very numerous, including derivations from words no longer used. More examples are: Barnes (lived or worked near a barn), Berry (fortified place), Brodie (muddy place), Brook, Butts (archery practice butts), Gates, Green, Hall, Hill, Home, Hyde (farming a hide of land, about 100 acres), Perry (pear tree), Thorne, Thorpe and Townsend.

Habitational Surnames[edit | edit source]

The place-specific ones were derived from towns, villages, manors or farmsteads. They indicate either where a person had come from in the period during which surnames were becoming fixed and hereditary (the majority) or of what place he was lord of the manor or most important resident. Many of these places are abroad and they were then adapted to the English language. The largest number of surnames introduced by the Normans were from their castles or villages in Normandy. These tended to be preceded by De, Du, Des or De la and began or ended with Aux, Beau, Champ, Court, Eux, Sainct, Mont, Val, Vill etc. (Guppy), many of which have later been anglicized. Some who were awarded lands in England, especially the younger sons of Norman landowners, used the name of this English manor instead.

A habitational name can be suspected if the surname contains one of the common place name suffixes such as -by, -don, -ford, -ham, -ley, or -ton. The large number of ‘from’ names is evidence of early family mobility. A small selection are Claydon (Suffolk, Bucks, Oxon), Lindsay (Lincs, Suffolk), Norfolk, Nottingham, Portsmouth (Hants), Waddell (Wedale near Edinburgh), Wickham, and Windsor (the present royal family chose a locative name from their residence in Berkshire).

In this category there are far more small places than large towns or cities for a very good reason. People were named after where they were from, and net movement was to the urban areas. Thus there are few people bearing the names of large cities like Sheffield, Liverpool or London, but many bearing a host of names derived from villages and hamlets such as Englefield, after Englefield Green in Surrey, Hartwell after three places in Bucks, Northants and Staffs, and Shillingford after two places in Devon and Oxon respectively. Recourse to an old edition of a detailed gazetteer such as Bartholomew’s, or even more detailed books on place names, can suggest possible places of origin in these cases.

Pauline Litton (Pitfalls and Possibilities in Family History Research. Names. Family Tree Magazine Vol 14 #6, page 18.) cautions us not to assume a derivation from a place until we have researched that place’s name derivation as well. Thus, if your name is Fleetwood, which goes back several hundred years, it cannot be derived from the Lancashire town of that name which was only built in the late 1830s. Likewise, the Telfords did not come from Telford in Shropshire that only received its name in 1963.


Additional Information
[edit | edit source]

See: England Names, Personal for more information.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.