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 have been five main origins of surnames:
- Norman antecedents
- family patronymics (i.e. names deriving from first names)
- names describing a location (where one lived)
- and occupational or trade names.
Normans. The Normans who invaded England in 1066 and became its ruling class often brought their own names with them. Norman of course is a common surname today.
Often surnames have derived from Norman first names, Gilbert and Hammond for example; or place-names back in Normandy, now anglicized such as Barry, Lyons, Maynard and Warren; or French words such as riviere replacing the old Anglo-Saxon ea and becoming the surname Rivers.
Patronyms. Patronyms (meaning “son of”) became a common form of establishing surnames. The suffix “s” was used, the “s” denoting the genitive or “of.” Thus Roberts or Williams. In the 12th and 13th century William, Robert, Richard, and Thomas were the most used first names. John became popular in the 14th century, as did Henry and Roger. Other common “s” patronyms have been Daniels, James, Matthews. and Peters.
Alternatively, the “-son” has been applied. This has been more evident in the north of England and Scotland, closer to Scandinavia where this patronymic suffix is most common. William son of John therefore became William Johnson. And we have Richardson and Robertson, Gibson (from Gilbert), and Nicholson and Nixon (from Nicholas) and so forth.
Nicknames. Nicknames describing appearance also became surnames:
The appearance could be by complexion, such as Brown or White; or by mood with Moody being the case in point. On the upside there are names like Gay and Bliss meaning “joyful;” on the downside Dole meaning “doleful” and Winter being someone with a frosty or gloomy disposition.
Or it could be by some characteristic, Young or Savage or Lightfoot. each name explaining itself; or by some characterisic as to what thate person might resemble – a Bird for example, such as a Peacock or a Crowe, an animal perhaps – a Fox or a Wolfe – or a Fish.
A number of the nicknames describing traits, with Old English roots, may have been among the earliest surnames recorded. Lewis came from the Old English leofwyne and meant “loving friend.“ Baldwin meant in fact a bold person, Curtis, with its roots still understandable, courteous.
Sometimes, the nickname would signify an outsider – i.e. Walsh or Welsh being Welsh, Scott Scottish, and French and Francis French. In time, Welsh-origin names such as Evans and Griffiths came into England, as did Scottish names as well
Location. Alternatively, the surname could reflect location. 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 Brooks or Hill or Underwood.
The location could be a place-name. The name here could end with the suffix “ton” (such as Clayton, Eaton and Norton), “ley” (such as Bradley and Yardley), “ham” (such as Beckham), or “-cliffe” (such as Radcliffe and Sutcliffe).
Other common occupational surnames at that time were Baker, Cook, Cooper (a barrel maker), Mason, Porter, Turner (a lathe operator), Walker (a fuller of cloth), and Wright. Less common occupations might be Barker, Carver, Creamer, Hooker, and Leadbetter (beater of lead).
Many surnames in England today reflect these origins.
Some names are more prevalent in one region of the country – Quayle for instance in the Isle of Man, Rowntree in Yorkshire, Penfold in Sussex, or Pascoe in Cornwall. Some are localized within one particular area or region of the country. And some like Sykes may 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 15th 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.
Highland. 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, such as Fraser, MacKenzie or MacDonald, 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. Lowland Scottish surnames reflect the proximity to England. Many early surnames, such as Hamilton, were in fact those brought by Anglo-Normans into Scotland.
Lowland surnames developed on the same lines of those in England, although they were slower to become hereditary. Notable Scottish surnames here would include Boyd, Crawford, Douglas, Menzies, and Stewart. Many names were in fact still undocumented in the 15th and 16th 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” Names. These “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). And Bevan came from “ap evan” (son of Evan).
Welsh Patronyms. 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 Evans, Jones, Rees and Roberts. The suffix “-kins” was also popular in Wales, as in Hopkins and Watkins.
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 originally Gaelic names and often clan or sept names. Examples of these surnames today are O’Connor, O’Sullivan and MacMahon. One of the few Gaelic-origin surnames that did not begin this way is Kavanagh.
However, the Anglo-Norman invasion brought with it the English language. The invaders stayed and many became large landowners. Over time their Norman French names changed to fit the local landscape – de Burgh to Burke, de Leon to Dillon, and de Lench to Lynch for instance. Other Anglo-Norman examples in Ireland are Jennings and Joyce.
Many Irish septs which became surnames have a regional bias, in one of the four main Irish provinces. In Ulster, for instance, there would be McElroy, O’Neill and Quinn; in Leinster Byrne, Dempsey and Nolan; in Munster Driscoll, Hennessy and McCarthy; and in Connacht Costello, Gallagher and O’Hara.
For a time, names acquired two forms, one Irish and one English. By the 18th century, however, the move towards English-style surnames had accelerated. Sometimes the Irish name split into two or more English forms, such as the Gaelic O’Riagain into Regan and Reagan. 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.
It is estimated that the Irish diaspora abroad (i.e. descendants of those who left Ireland in the past) total some 80 million today. Their story has been told in the website They Took the Boat.
The Spread of Surnames
The world opened up for the English in the 17th 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 in America, despite more recent immigration from elsewhere. Thus three of the biggest hotel chains in America – Hilton, Marriott, and Sheraton – are all from English surnames.
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. Canadian and Australian names remain heavily English and Scottish in origin.
Most African Americans, to the country’s shame, arrived in America as slaves. They were usually given a single name by their slave-owner, but not a surname. When they came to enter American society, either individually when they secured their freedom or collectively after Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves in 1863, they needed to adopt an American surname.
Some but not that many took the name of their former master, although a nearby name might instead have been taken. Interestingly, Washington is the “blackest” surname in America today, with close to 90 percent of Washingtons being African American. Perhaps Washington was chosen because of President Washington’s widely known gesture of freeing his slaves in his will.
The next “blackest” surnames are also Presidential, Jefferson and Jackson. Irish surnames are often found, perhaps because of black and Irish inter-marriages at some stage. Murray became a common African American surname in Maryland. Mohammed Ali famously discarded his Kentucky “slave” name of Clay.
Caribbean, In the Caribbean, the British Government had provided in 1834 a short list of surnames that slaves were allowed to take on being emancipated. That list was largely ignored.
Some chose the name of someone who they liked or who had been good to them or who was famous. But many did take the name of their property owner. That is why, for instance, Campbell is one of the most common surnames in Jamaica today. After slavery, the Cumberbatch name is now more numerous in Barbados than it is back in England.
Surnames from Elsewhere
These were initially French Canadian surnames, such as Bernard, Durant and Martin that were brought by French settlers in the 17th century to what was then New France. Some, like Blanchard and Landry, were also found in Louisiana after the Acadian exodus from the Canadian maritime provinces a century later.
The politician Justin Trudeau and the singer Celine Dion came from French Canadian families in Quebec, as well as, two generations back, the British TV documentary maker Louis Theroux. However, Malcolm Gladwell from Ontario has an English father.
Then there are the Huguenot names, surnames brought by Protestant refugees from France in the 17th century to England and America. Agee and Pettigrew are Huguenot names; while Pertwee and Brokaw are English modifications of earlier French Huguenot versions.
Christopher Columbus of course was an early Italian arrival in the New World. But the main Italian immigrant numbers to America were to come in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Prominent Italian Americans of today include the former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, the immunologist Anthony Fauci, and in film the director Martin Scorsese and the actors Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The Dutch were a great maritime nation in the 17th century. Dutch surnames such as Hendricks and Jacobs have spread widely; while names such as Roosevelt, Beekman and Van Buren found their way to New York in the Americas.
Springsteen is a rarer Dutch surname, but one borne by the American singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen.
The first wave of German immigration into America came in the early 1700’s from the Rhine Palatine and from Switzerland. They were fleeing religious persecution at home. Most ended up in Pennsylvania, bringing their Mennonite church with them. Their Germanic names often changed under English rule to English-style names. Thus Schneider became Snyder, Schweitzer Swisher, Hubner Hoover, and so forth.
The American surname Myers may have started as Meyers or Moyers in Switzerland, Mayers in Austria, and Meyers in southern Germany.
The reasons for immigration were different in the 19th century, in search of a better life usually. They came from all German states and went not just to Pennsylvania but all over as the middle and west of the country was opening up. And they brought German skills with them, notably beer-making, with which the Schaefer name became known.
Other Germanic “-er” names, generally denoting occupation, to be found have include Berger, Kaiser, Keller, Wagner and Ziegler. Schlesinger describes someone from Silesia; while Klinger, Springer and Zink may have started out as nicknames. There are also “-mann” endings such as Altmann, Newmann and Zimmermann and other Germanic names such as Klein, Schulz and Wolf are also widespread.
The Jews were banned from England in 1290 and did not return there until the 1650’s, in the guise of Portuguese traders. They were to make their mark as merchants and financiers in London and many families prospered. There was another larger but poorer Jewish influx into England in the late 1800’s.
In America the early settlement was of Sephardic Jews in Charleston, South Carolina. In the 19th century Ashkenazi Jews began to arrive from Germany. Later came a larger immigration, escaping pogroms, from the wider Jewish diaspora of the former Russian empire and other parts of Eastern Europe.
Some Jewish surnames such as Cohen and Levy reflect ancient Biblical names. Some have come from early place-names where Jews resided, such as Halpern (from Heilbronn) or Shapiro (from Speyer). Sassoon is an example of a Sephardic Jewish surname.
Many more came about in the early 1800’s when Ashkenazi Jews were forced by Governments to adopt surnames. The names chosen at that time were often ornamental ones – Bernstein, Goldberg, Rosenthal or Zuckerberg for example. There were also Germanic names brought with them from the Yiddish diaspora in Europe – names such as Friedman, Hirsch, Kramer, Kushner, Rubin, Sachs, Schiff and Spiegel.
Then again their names could have changed as an immigrant on arrival in England or America. Many might have an adopted English-type name, in some cases to disguise their Jewishness. Popular names here have been Goodman, Hart and Miller. Meanwhile a name such as Samuelson cane be either Jewish or Scandinavian in origin.
People from Scandinavia – from Sweden, Norway and Denmark – started migrating to America from the 1850’s onwards. They settled in the Upper Midwest mainly, states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Their surnames were patronymic surnames, with conversion from the Scandinavian “-sen” and “-sson” to the American “-son,” such as Hanson, Larson, or Peterson, usually taking place on arrival or soon afterwards. Even by the 1860’s many Scandinavian patronymic surnames were not hereditary. Thus it was that Carl and Helga Erickson came to America in 1861 with their son Swan Carlson.
For the spread of surnames throughout the English-speaking world, you might want to check the following two pages:
- The Top 300 Surnames. The top 300 surnames in the English-speaking world are listed, broken up by numbers in the UK, America and elsewhere – ranked from number one Smith to number 300 Tate.
- The Top Ten Surnames by Country. The categories here are: (a) countries – England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, America, Canada, Jamaica, Barbados, Australia and New Zealand and (b) categories within the US – African American, Germanic, Jewish, and Hispanic.
If you wish to dig further into online information about surnames, do check out our review of the Best Genealogy Sites – covering the top four sites, the best DNA-testing sites, and the best free sites. Among the sites covered and reviewed in detail are: