English Surnames

and their meanings

It is easy to take the surname we carry for granted but it is one of our strongest links with our forbears – it was their name too! Without our surnames we would find it impossible to trace any link with our past. Since in western cultures women usually take their husbands surname on marriage, it is usually much easier to trace paternal lines than the maternal lines.

Surnames derive from a very wide range of sources. The hereditary nature of English surnames seems to have been developed by the Normans although surnames had existed before the Norman Conquest. Different groups and classes adopted rigid names at different times depending on need. A given name is perfectly adequate for social reasons but a surname becomes more important with status when ownership of land, titles and possessions needs to be proved.

English surnames usually fall into one of the following categories

Nicknames

These described the character or appearance of the individual and many have survived amazingly unchanged. Proud is an example, it comes from prud meaning arrogant. Doolittle is another, it refers to someone who was idle! The name Fox has remained completely unchanged and refers to someone as cunning as a fox. Of course, language does change, Smart originates from smeart meaning active rather streetwise.

Some nicknames have lost their original meaning completely. Moody for example comes from OE modig meaning bold or brave.

Place names

This forms by far the largest group of surnames. This can be the name of a town of village where the person originated or lived, such as Trowbridge or Trubridge from the town in Wiltshire or Kendall from the town of Kendal in Cumbria.

Another alternative is that the name describes the place where someone lived such as Acland from the OE ac-land meaning someone who dwelt by an oak grove. Old English ried meant a clearing and this has given rise to a number of surnames including Read, Reed, Redd and Reid.

Occupational names

Not only does this group of surnames give information on what an ancestor did for a living it also is a very interesting social commentary on the way people lived and what they did. There are very few of us now working with horses on a daily basis but several surnames show that our ancestors did. Constable originally meant an officer of the stables, Smith comes from the OE smid meaning blacksmith or farrier, very closely related to horses and their work. Smith is one of the few surnames recorded before the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Cook is another deriving from coc, a seller of cooked meats rather than the cook himself.

Relationships

Many of our surnames end in -son implying that the person had taken their father’s name. Sometimes the name is obvious such as in Johnson and Jackson. Some are a little less obvious. Hanson is the son of John as well but from the Flemish version Han very common in Yorkshire in the thirteenth century.

Other relationships are recorded in surnames. Haldane means half Dane and comes mainly from the east of the country which is not surprising.

As well as English surnames, of course a lot of us have names that have origins in another country, either recently or way back in history. This can lead to a name being changed, either deliberately to disguise a person’s origin or simply to make a name easier for the indigenous population to pronounce.

Spellings are sometimes changed but the sound retained, such as Coqueril becoming Cockerill. Sometimes a similar sounding word may be used, this was common with Scandinavian names where the unenglish bj is common. Hence Bjorn becomes Burn. Sometimes a similar looking word is substituted, so Moulins becomes Mullins. Some names were simply translated, so Dubois becomes Wood and Jeune becomes Young.

Tracing the distribution of a surname can be as rewarding and interesting as tracing a family tree. By researching records and finding the earliest reference to a surname can indicate its geographical origin and local the distribution of some names still is.