The Origin of Surnames
in the United Kingdom

Have you ever stopped to think about the origin of surnames - or perhaps of your surname, specifically? Most people simply accept their family name as part of their identity from birth, without really wondering about how it came to be.

The use of surnames in England, Ireland, and Scotland developed gradually between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, and in Wales, between the 15th and the mid-18th centuries.

Prior to that time, most people lived in rural areas in small villages, and rarely strayed far from home. Everyone knew everyone else in the village, so there was no need for a family name to identify them.

Where there was more than one individual bearing the same name, villagers would distinguish one from the other by the use of nicknames, which could be derived from their occupation, their father’s name, or a particular physical or personality characteristic. So, John the baker would be distinguished from John, son of David (John Davidson), from John the brown (brown hair or dark skin), from John the strong of arm (John Armstrong), and from John who lived by the church on the hill (John Churchill).

These were not surnames as we know them, as they were not passed down from generation to generation. Rather, they were specific to the individual. If John Davidson, mentioned above, had a son named William, for example, William would be known as William, son of John (William Johnson). And if John the baker changed his profession and became a tailor, he would then be known as John the tailor – a situation which makes family history research during this time period somewhat of a challenge!

Some attribute the ultimate origin of surnames - or rather, the beginning of the move toward the use of family names - to the arrival of William the Conqueror and the Normans in 1066; others feel that it was related to the imposition of a “poll tax” in the 1300s, when everyone needed to be counted and a fee paid per head, and therefore all needed to be clearly identified by family in a uniform manner.

The truth about the origin of surnames is likely a combination of the two, and of other social factors at play. That is, population growth was resulting in larger towns and villages, and not everyone knew everyone else any more. Initially, it was kings and members of the nobility who adopted surnames, and eventually, by the 1400s (except for Wales), everyone had family names.

Wm the Conqueror - Family Tree

The above chart is a short family tree of William the Conqueror, courtesy of Wikipedia. Note the use of only the first name, sometimes coupled with the name of the place that they were from in Normandy.

There were many different ways that family names were chosen, or sometimes imposed. With the feudal system in place, some people were obliged to take on the surname of the lord of the manor, whether or not they were related to him; others did so voluntarily.

Some of the Scottish clans would recruit as many people as they could to join their ranks, in order to be able to defend their territory against other clans. Some clans would require that everyone take on a specific last name, or use one of a number of surnames within the clan. Given the origins of those surnames, there may be a good number of people with the same surname who had no common ancestor.

However, in the vast majority of cases, the origin of surnames was from five different categories, many of them related to the descriptive terms /nicknames outlined above, as follows:

1. Relationship to their father

A page from my great-grandmother's journal

As noted above, one of the ways of distinguishing individuals from those with the same name was to call them "son of [father’s name]". This was known as the patronymic system, since each father’s first name was passed down to his son, as a way of identifying him.

Once the descriptor began to be passed down from father to son, with no reference to the actual name of the son’s father, it became a surname. That is, Davidson would become a family name when its use described a group of individuals all descended from the original David’s son, rather than describing only the actual individual who was David's son.

Names such as Davidson, Thompson, Williamson, Johnson, Robertson, Robinson, Benson, Harrison, and Carlson are examples of surnames in this category.

Want to provide other examples of the origins of such surnames? Click here.

It also is noteworthy that the Scottish tended to use the form Williamson, for example, with “son” written out in full, while farther south (in parts of Britain and especially in Wales), they tended more to the shorter Williams, using only the “s” to represent “son”.

Unofficial flag of Ireland

There were various terms used to mean “son of” in the British Isles, depending on the original language spoken in the various areas.

In Ireland, for example, the use of “Mac” means “son of”: MacDonald and MacNeil are examples. They also used the contraction “Mc” in some forenames.

The term “O’ ” at the front of a name , on the other hand, means “grandson of”. Names such as O’Bryan, O’Neill, O’Connor, and O’Malley are examples.

Flag of Scotland

As well as the examples cited using “son”, above, at the end of a name, the Scots would add a Mc or a Mac to a name to indicate “son of”. This is the origin of surnames such as McTavish, McDonald, McDougall, and MacRae.

Blason of Normandie

The term “Fitz”, also used in this manner, is Norman in origin; if you think of the modern French “fils de” for “son of”, it is not difficult to see where the term came from.

Although originally it had the neutral meaning of “son of”, the same as the other forms outlined above, it was later applied to describe illegitimate sons of princes and kings. The name Fitzroy, for example, was applied to illegitimate sons of a king ("roy", or "roi", meaning king), while Fitzjames was applied to illegitimate sons of King James II of England.

In Wales, the patronymic system was by far the most common for the origin of surnames, although there were regional variations: the use of nicknames was common in the middle part of Wales, and of place-names (i.e., Rhys from [village name] ) in the north. The use of ‘ab’ or ‘ap’, both of which are contractions of the Welsh word “mab”, meaning “son of”, was used in christening records.

Flag of Wales

Leaving aside the complexities of the Welsh grammar rules, which state that the equivalent of a noun morphs into another form when the definitive article (“the”) is placed before it – my husband is the Welsh scholar, not me! – it was not uncommon for Welsh christening records to record a child’s first name, and then list “ap so-and-so” or “ferch so-and-so” (ferch meaning daughter of) (or the "morphed” equivalents of ap/ab and ferch), for as many as seven generations back on the male line!

Over the years, as the Welsh population increasingly adopted English names for their children, the family names became more English-sounding. Last names originating from common first names include Jones (from John), Hughes (Hugh), Thomas, Davis (David), and Williams (William). The Welsh surname Bowen was derived from “ab Owen” (son of Owen), as were Barry (ab Harry) and Bevan (ab Evan).

While the patronymic system was more common than the other forms in the origin of surnames in Wales, as noted above, the use of nicknames was also a source. For example, the origin of the surname Bengough is found in the Welsh word for “head” (pen) and the word for “red” (gough/coch).

2. Occupation

A medieval man's occupation was a great source for the origin of surnames, many of which are common even today. Thus, names such as Miller, Carpenter, Wainwright (wagon maker), Mason, Thatcher, Farmer, Carter, Taylor, Baker, Cook, Shearer, Shepherd, Cooper (wooden bucket maker), Webb or Webber (weaver), Fletcher (arrow maker), Butcher, Barber, Butler, Chamberlain, Constable, Hunter, Potter, Carrier, Catchpole (one who finds and brings in debtors), Bowman, Fisher, Fowler, Saddler, and Cartwright all came about in this manner.

Presumably, the husband of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had an ancestor who thatched roofs for a living!

3. Physical or Personality Characteristics

Nicknames which described a person’s physical characteristics or personality traits were the origin of some surnames.

On the physical side, names such as Broadhead, Little, Long, Short, Brown (usually referring to brown hair or skin), Black (usually describing hair), Strong, Armstrong, Baine (which meant “boney” in medieval England), and Ball (which meant "bald" back then) all are examples. So is Aikenhead; interestingly, in the town where I spent my teens, there was a pharmacy called "Aikenhead's Drugstore"!

The origin of surnames such as Gentle, Fox (as in “cunning as a …”), Stern, and Lawless, all can be found in character traits which the original person bearing that surname possessed.

4. Status or an Office Carried Out

A persons's status, or the office that they carried out, was the origin of some surnames.

Examples are Knight, Bachelor, Squire, Reeve, Clark or Clarke (clerk or secretary), Sherriff and Bishop.

5. Place Names / Locations / Compass markings

Where a person either was living, or had lived before coming to the then-current village, was the origin of some surnames. Examples are Lancaster (a person from the city of the same name), London, and Parris.

Others which indicate a less exact location would be Attwood (one who dwelt at the wood), Brooks (one who dwelt by the brook), Hill (one who dwelt by or on the hill), Eastwood, Eastman, North, and Churchill (one who lived by the church on the hill).

Conclusions: The Origin of Surnames

A review of the above discussion of the origin of surnames makes it clear that genealogists researching family trees during this time period will be faced with some up-hill battles!

If you manage to trace your line back far enough that you are into the first-name era, you may experience more of a challenge tracing your family history from then on - unless, of course, your ancestors were royalty or nobility! In that case, their parentage was and is a matter of public record, and can easily be found.

Unless your surname is extremely uncommon, it is quite possible that a number of families with the same surname could be found living in the same village who were completely unrelated to each other. (That is, of course, until the children of those unrelated families began intermarrying within the village, and then things become clouded with yet another layer of complication!)

Another fascinating aspect of family history research for us to contemplate!

Go from "Origin of Surnames" to Naming Conventions

Go to 'Surname Variations and Name Changes'

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or Particularly Descriptive Surnames?

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