Last names have not been around forever. It seems that they first began to be used in England around 1250, possibly as a need to identify individuals beyond their immediate family and locality. The Norman feudal system provided one reason for this need for surnames: so too did the development of subsidy rolls at parishes around the country.
There appear to be four main origins of surnames:
- family patronyms (i.e. names deriving from first names)
- names describing a location (where one lived)
- and occupational or trade names.
The Scandinavian nomenclature seems to have provided one early form, particularly in the north of England. William son of John therefore became William Johnson and so forth. Alternatively, the suffix “s” was used, the “s” denoting the genitive or “of.” Thus Roberts or Williams. In the twelfth and thirteenth century, William, Robert, Richard, and Thomas were the most used first names. John became popular in the fourteenth century, as did Henry and Roger. These names became the bases for the most common surnames.
Nicknames describing appearance also became surnames, by complexion (such as “Brown” or “White”), by characteristic (“Wise” or “Young” for instance). Some of the nicknames describing traits, with Old English roots, may have been the earliest surnames. “Lewis” comes from the Old English leofwyne and means loving friend. “Baldwin” means in fact a bold person, “Gale” means merry or gay, “Curtis”, with its roots still understandable, courteous. Some names are less flattering. “Crump” means bent or crooked, “Morley” ill-omened and someone to avoid.
Sometimes, the nickname signifies an outsider (i.e. “Walsh” or “Welsh” being Welsh and “Scott” Scottish). In time, Welsh-origin names such as Evans and Griffiths came into England, as did Scottish names as well
Many people were also named by where they lived. Thus John who lived by a wood became John Wood, Thomas who lived in a hall (probably as a servant) Thomas Hall. The location names were either singular or with the suffix “s” (denoting “of”), such as Banks or Rhodes.
A later naming (apparently) was that due to occupation. Every village had a smith or a tailor and Thomas the smith became Thomas Smith, Robert the tailor Robert Taylor. Other common occupational names were Baker, Clark or Clarke (meaning a scribe), Carter, Cook, Cooper (a barrel maker), Parker (the park keeper), Turner (a lathe operator), Walker (a fuller of cloth), Ward (a watchman or guard), and Wright.
The most common surnames in England today reflect these origins.
The Most Common English Surnames
Some names are more prevalent in one region of the country. Some are localized within one particular area. Some less common names often have more than one geographic origin. And some come from a single place or forebear.
Overall, the process of surnames looks to have become the norm for everyone throughout England by the early part of the fifteenth century. And these names, which describe our long-since vanished medieval way of life, have stayed with us to this day.
Scottish, Welsh and Irish Surnames
Scottish surnames divide between Highland and Lowland names. In the Highlands, hereditary surnames developed late. The clan structure resulted in a large number of people with the same name, but no specific surname of their own. Clan chiefs increased their followers by conciliation or coercion and all took the name of the clan. The modern bearer of a clan surname therefore is not necessarily a member of the clan by blood or heredity. Gaelic surnames do occur; but they are relatively rare. However, the number of names beginning in “Mac” or Mc” (son in Gaelic) shows that its heritage has been handed down.
Lowland Scottish surnames reflect the proximity to England. The earliest surnames were in fact the those of Normans. Lowland surnames developed on the same lines of those in England, although they were slower to become hereditary. Many names were in fact still undocumented in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Hereditary surnames in Wales are a post-sixteenth century development. Prior to that time, the prototype for the Welsh name was the patronymic, such as “Madog ap Jevan ap Jerwerth” (Madoc, son of Evan, son of Yorwerth). The system worked well in what was still mainly an oral culture. Many in fact would take pride in being able to recite their forebears by memory and would decry the English practice.
Welsh “P” surnames came from the “ap” roots, such as Powell, from “ap howell,” (son of Hywel), Price, from “ap rhys,” (son of Rhys), and Pritchard, from “ap richard,” (son of Richard). Norman names came into the frame in the 1500’s. Names such as John ap Madog, Edward ap Richard, and William ap Robert point to the the future preponderance of the Welsh Jones, Williams, and Roberts.
Surnames began to appear in Ireland in the tenth century. They were patronymic, formed by prefixing an “O” to the grandfather’s name or a “Mac,” somewhat later, to the father’s name. They were of course originally Gaelic names. But the Anglo-Norman invasion brought with it the English language. For a time, names acquired two forms, one Irish and one English.
By the eighteenth century, the move towards English-style surnames had accelerated. Irish names might either be translated or changed to a better-known English surname (hence O Blathmhaic became Blawick and then Blake). The names of Irish immigrants to America were often further corrupted in pronunciation and spelling, thus adding further difficulties to ancestry tracing. In addition, many Irish families in more recent times have chosen to re-adopt their original surnames, thereby complicating the picture further.
The Most Common Surnames
The table below shows the most common current surnames in England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
The Ten Most Common Surnames
|England and Wales||Scotland||Ireland|
* These names were among the top ten surnames in Wales alone. The Scots and Irish, as can be seen, have their own distinctive surnames which have been maintained. Only Smith appears in all three lists above and only Brown in two of the lists.
The Spread of Surnames
The world opened up for the English in the seventeenth century, first to America and later elsewhere. They came in a variety of guises, religious dissenters seeking freedom of worship, land seekers and adventurers, and refugees from hardship and oppression; and some came involuntarily. Large numbers were forcibly transported as convicts, first to America and then to Australia. Each of these colonists or migrants brought with them their English name; and the English language.
Where English became the lingua franca, the surnames that they brought became the most common, despite more recent immigration from elsewhere. The table below shows the most common surnames in America, Canada, and Australia today.
The Ten Most Common Surnames
English names are also to be found in New Zealand and, in pockets, in South Africa, West Africa, the Caribbean, and India.
The English surname preponderance in America owes much to African Americans generally adopting English type names after emancipation; and to many other immigrants anglicizing their names on arrival or soon after. The leading Hispanic name is still only number eight. Canadian and Australian names remain heavily English and Scottish.