English Surnames Meanings and Origins

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English surnames as we know them today -- family names passed down intact from father to son to grandson -- weren't widely used until after the Norman conquest of 1066. Prior to that time there just weren't enough people to really make it necessary to use anything other than a single name.

As the country's population grew, however, people began tacking on descriptions such as "John the Baker" or "Thomas, son of Richard" to distinguish between men (and women) of the same name. These descriptive names eventually became associated with a family, inherited, or passed down, from one generation to the next. 

While they came into use in the eleventh century, hereditary surnames were not commonplace in England prior to the era of the sixteenth-century Reformation. It is likely that the introduction of parish registers in 1538 played a role in the use of surnames, as a person entered under one surname at baptism would not be likely to be married under another name, and buried under a third.

Some areas of England came later to the use of surnames, however. It was not until the late seventeenth century that many families in Yorkshire and Halifax took permanent surnames.

Surnames in England generally developed from four major sources.

Patronymic and Matronymic Surnames

These are surnames derived from baptismal or Christian names to indicate family relationship or descent—patronymic derived from the father's given name and matronymic, meaning derived from the mother's name.

Some baptismal or given names have become surnames without any change in form (a son took his father's given name as his surname). Others added an ending such as -s (more common in the South and West of England) or -son (preferred in the northern half of England) to his father's name.

The latter -son suffix was also sometimes added to the mother's name. English surnames ending in -ing (from the British engi, "to bring forth," and -kin generally indicate a patronymic or family name as well.

Examples: Wilson (son of Will), Rogers (son of Roger), Benson (son of Ben), Madison (son/daughter of Maud), Marriott (son/daughter of Mary), Hilliard (son/daughter of Hildegard).

Occupational Surnames

Many English surnames developed from a person's job, trade or position in society. Three common English surnames—Smith, Wright and Taylor–are excellent examples of this.

A name ending in -man or -er usually implies such a trade name, as in Chapman (shopkeeper), Barker (tanner) and Fiddler. On occasion, a rare occupational name can provide a clue to the family's origin. For example, Dymond (dairymen) are commonly from Devon, and Arkwright (maker of arks or chests) are generally from Lancashire.

Descriptive Surnames 

Based on a unique quality or physical characteristic of the individual, descriptive surnames often developed from nicknames or pet names. Most refer to an individual's appearance - size, color, complexion, or physical shape (Little, White, Armstrong).

A descriptive surname may also refer to an individual's personal or moral characteristics, such as Goodchild, Puttock (greedy) or Wise.

Geographical or Local Surnames 

These are names derived from the location of the homestead from which the first bearer and his family lived, and are generally the most common origin of English surnames. They were first introduced into England by the Normans, many of whom were known by the name of their personal estate. Thus, many English surnames derive from the name of an actual town, county, or estate where an individual lived, worked, or owned land.

County names in Great Britain, such as Cheshire, Kent and Devon have been commonly adopted as surnames. A second class of local surnames derived from cities and towns, such as Hertford, Carlisle and Oxford.

Other local surnames derive from descriptive landscape features such as hills, woods, and streams which describe the original bearer's residence. This is the origin of surnames such as HillBush, Ford, Sykes (marshy stream) and Atwood (near a wood).

Surnames which begin with the prefix At- can especially be attributed as a name with local origins. By- was also sometimes used as a prefix for local names.

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Powell, Kimberly. "English Surnames Meanings and Origins." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/english-surnames-meanings-and-origins-1422405. Powell, Kimberly. (2021, February 16). English Surnames Meanings and Origins. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/english-surnames-meanings-and-origins-1422405 Powell, Kimberly. "English Surnames Meanings and Origins." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/english-surnames-meanings-and-origins-1422405 (accessed June 8, 2023).