Saturday, 6 April 2013

Origins of Surnames in the UK

I love discovering the meaning of names as I believe that we are not given names by chance, but our names impress on our identity of "who we are" and who we become.

Surnames started to become more commonly used from the Middle Ages when the population of the UK grew and there would often be many people known by the same forename, eg John, William, Sarah, Elizabeth etc. In conversation people needed to be able distinguish between which John you may have been conversing about. Perhaps we were talking about John the son of William - John Williamson, John from Bradford - John Bradford or even perhaps John the baker - John Baker.

Surnames are derived in different ways and these are the most common types of surname:
  • Patronymic - name of the father. 
  • Metonymic - occupational surname.
  • Matronymic - name of mother. 
  • Locational - named after the place a family came from.
  • Topographical - names derived from geographic features perhaps near where they lived.
  • Sobriquet - nickname Redhead, Littlejohn may have derived from someone who was very tall, Caesar meant "hairy", Armstrong
  • Papponymic - grandfather's name - often Irish in origin "Ua, Ui or O" & grandfather's name

Patronymic surnames are derived from the name of their father.
Davidson Crest

Many of the patronymic surnames are obvious as they end with -son if they are derived for the English, for example, John's son = Johnson or William's son = Williamson. Sometimes spelling have been altered and changed, for example, Thomas's son = Thompson or Thomasson.

There are a number of patronymic surnames in England which are also derived from other languages.
  • From the French and the Norman Conquest, these often begin with Fitz- which is derived from the French "fils" meaning "son". For example: Fitzjohn = son of John & Fitzgerald = son of Gerald.
  • From Gaelic, especially found in Scotland and Ireland, names beginning with Mac- or Mc- as "mac" is the Gaelic for son. For example, MacGregor or McGregor = son of Gregory.
  • From Old Irish, the prefix O'- means descendant (or grandson - see Papponymic). Originally it was written in Irish as an O with an accent above it but when the names were anglicised it was mistaken for an apostrophe.
  • From the Welsh, we have "ab" or "ap" meaning son which in many cases was dropped altogether but there are a few examples in which it remains, ab Owen = Bowen, ap Rhys = Price or ap Richard = Pritchard. The more modern patronymic names from the Welsh solely added an "-s" at the end of a name, for example, Edwards, Williams or Jones which are all really common surnames in Wales even today.
  • From the Cornish, similarly to the Welsh or originally from the "Breton" language, "map" was used as prefix like "ap" as above but also in Cornish is found the suffix "-kin" as in Tompkin = Thomas's son.

It is common for Jewish families to have Patronymic surnames, often in England they have been anglicised over the years - David's son = Davidson, from David in the Old Testament.

Fletcher - arrow maker
Metonymic surnames are occupational. They are derived from the person's occupation, which may seem simple with names such as Baker, Smith or Farmer, but what about the older occupations we know longer have such as Fletcher = person who made arrows or Fowler = bird catcher.

There may also be spelling variations for the same surname such as Smith, Smythe, Smithe, Smithie, Smyth etc, but they are all derived from the same root.

Smith is the UK's most common surname as most villages or even towns would have only had one smith who would have been well known by many of the villagers. In conversation in the Middle Ages if we would have referred to John the smith, most people would have known who you were talking about. The occupation was probably passed down through the family from father to son as well, so the trade would have been in one family, the Smith family.

Matronymic surnames are derived from the name of their mother. These are much fewer than the patronymic surnames but some survive.
  • Ibbetson = Ibb's son, Ibb being the shorten nickname for people named Isabel.
  • Beaton derived from the first name Beatrice.
  • Megson = Meg's son, Meg being the shorten form of Margaret.

Locational surnames are names which are derived from place names. There are a few different types of locational surnames:
Bolling Hall, East Bowling, Bradford, West Yorkshire
(Image link:, Author:
David Spencer, 18 July 2005, accessed 15th Feb 2014
  • A person who moved to live a different area was named after the place they were originally from. For example, John Bradford may have been from the city of Bradford in West Yorkshire or the many other little towns and villages throughout the country which take this place name. The place name Bradford is originally derived from the "Broad-ford". Another example of this is, Granville a name derived from a place in France called "Grainville-la-Teinturiere" which is thought was brought to England during the Norman Conquest.
  • The other type of locational surname might be someone who owned the land of a certain place. For example the Lord of Manor of Bolling Hall in East Bowling, Bradford was named William Bolling in 1316. The name Bolling has derived to Bowling over the years.

Topographical surnames are names derived from geographical features such as Hill or Underwood. Some topographical names might not be so obvious, for example:
  • Penver is derived from the Cornish for "big hilltop".
  • Lund is derived from the Norse for "grove".
  • Dale a name which is derived from the Scandinavian "dalr" meaning valley, but even today "Dale" is still a commonly used word in some local northern dialects to mean valley.

Sobriquet surnames are names derived from nicknames.
  • Some may be literal nicknames such as "Redhead" for someone who has red hair.
  • Some may be a little more sarcastic in tone such as "Littlejohn" for someone who may have been actually very tall.

Papponymic names are from their grandfather's name. Often the Irish in origin, "O'-" meant grandson, so O'Brien, is either a descendant of Brian or a grandson of Brian.

We do not understand where many surnames are now derived from as their meanings have been lost or been distorted by accents, dialect, differences in spellings and even differences of language (Welsh, Gaelic, English, Norse, Manx, Cornish).

Some surnames are more common in different parts of the country than others, which could denote that the name commenced in that particular area of the country. There are surname distribution maps available online to search for your surnames on, to discover which areas of the country the name was more common in at different points in history. These can be found at: RootsUKPublicProfiler & Ancestry.

The knowledge of whether your surname is Norse or Cornish etc in origin can also help you know whereabouts in the UK your surname may have originated from.

To find out the origins of some of the surnames in my family, see the Davidson page - prequel for the name Davidson, Chapters 5 for the surname Redwood, Chapter 9 for the surname Hair, Chapter 11 for the surname Seddon & Chapter 12 for the surnames Kay & Peacock.

Copyright © 2013 Ruth Hogan

1 comment:

  1. Ruth,

    I want to let you know that your blog is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!