The Origin of Surnames
With a few exceptions, hereditary surnames – the last names passed down through the males of a family – didn’t exist until about 1000 years ago. While it may be hard to believe nowadays, surnames simply weren’t necessary before that. In a world that was much less crowded than it is today – a world where most people never ventured more than a few miles from their place of birth and every man knew his neighbors – first, or given names, were the only designations necessary. Even kings were known by a single name.
During the middle ages, as families got bigger and villages became more populous, individual names became inadequate to distinguish friends and neighbors from one another. One John might be called “John son of William” to distinguish him from his neighbor “John the smith” and his friend “John of the dale.” These secondary names were not quite yet surnames as we know them today, however, because they weren’t passed down from father to son.
“John son of William,” for example, might have a son known as “Peter the fletcher (arrow maker).”
True surnames, hereditary names used to distinguish one person from another, first came into use in Europe about 1000 A.D., beginning in southern areas and gradually spreading northward. In many countries the use of hereditary surnames began with the nobility who often called themselves after their ancestral seats. Many of the gentry, however, did not adopt surnames until the 14th century, and it was not until about 1500 A.D. that most surnames became inherited and no longer transformed with a change in a person’s appearance, job, or place of residence.
Surnames, for the most part, drew their meanings from the lives of men in the Middle Ages, and their origins can be divided into four main categories:
Patronymics, last names derived from a father’s name, were widely used in forming surnames, especially in the Scandinavian countries. Occasionally, the name of the mother contributed the surname, referred to as a matronymic surname, as happens today in Iceland. Such names were formed by adding a prefix or suffix denoting either “son of” or “daughter of.” English and Scandinavian names ending in “son” are patronymic surnames, as are many names prefixed with the Gaelic “Mac,” the Norman “Fitz,” the Irish “O,” and the Welsh “ap.”
Examples: The son of John (JOHNSON), son of Donald (MACDONALD), son of Patrick (FITZPATRICK), son of Brien (O’BRIEN), son of Howell (ap HOWELL).
Place Names or Local Names
One of the most common ways to differentiate one man from his neighbor was to describe him terms of his geographic surroundings or location (similar to describing a friend as the “one who lives down the street”). Such local names denoted some of the earliest instances of surnames in France, and were quickly introduced into England by the Norman nobility who chose names based on the locations of their ancestral estates. If a person or family migrated from one place to another, they were often identified by the place they came from. If they lived near a stream, cliff, forest, hill, or other geographic feature, this might be used to describe them. Some last names can still be traced back to their exact place of origin, such as a particular city or county, while others have origins lost in obscurity (ATWOOD lived near a wood, but we don’t know which one). Compass directions were another common geographic identification in the Middle Ages (EASTMAN, WESTWOOD). Most geographic-based surnames are easy to spot, though the evolution of language has made others less obvious, i.e. DUNLOP (muddy hill).
Examples: BROOKS lived along a brook; CHURCHILL lived near a church on a hill; NEVILLE came from Neville-Seine-Maritime, France or Neuville (New Town), a common place name in France; PARRIS came from – unsurprisingly – Paris, France.
Descriptive Names (Nicknames)
Surnames derived from a physical or other characteristic of first bearer make up an estimated 10% of all surname or family names. These descriptive surnames are thought to have originally evolved as nicknames during the Middle Ages when men created nicknames or pet names for his neighbors and friends based on personality or physical appearance. Thus, Michael the strong became Michael STRONG and black-haired Peter became Peter BLACK. Sources for such nicknames included: an unusual size or shape of the body, bald heads, facial hair, physical deformities, distinctive facial features, skin or hair coloring, and even emotional disposition.
Examples: BROADHEAD, a person with a large head; BAINES (bones), a thin man; GOODMAN, a generous individual; ARMSTRONG, strong in the arm
The last class of surnames to develop reflect the occupation or status of the first bearer. These occupational last names, derived from the specialty crafts and trades of the medieval period, are fairly self-explanatory. A MILLER was essential for grinding flour from grain, a WAINWRIGHT was a wagon builder, and BISHOP was in the employ of a Bishop.
Examples: ALDERMAN, an official clerk of the court; TAYLOR, one that makes or repairs garments; CARTER, a maker/driver of carts.
The Meanings of Our Various Ancestors’ Surnames
Chandler – This surname is of early medieval English origin, and is an occupational name for a maker or seller of candles. The derivation is from the Middle English “cha(u)ndeler”, ultimately from the Old French “chandelier”, Late Latin “candelarius”, a derivative of “candela” a candle, from “candere” to be bright, with the agent suffix “-er”, one who does or works with (something). The name may also, more rarely, have denoted someone who was responsible for the lighting arrangements in a large house, or else one who owed rent in the form of wax or candles. Job-descriptive surnames originally denoted the actual occupation of the namebearer, and later became hereditary. The surname is first recorded in the latter half of the 13th Century (see below), and can also be found as Chantler and Candler.
Blackburn – This ancient place name and surname is Anglo-Scottish. It is locational, and is said to derive chiefly from the town of Blackburn in the county of Lancashire, although there are other minor places, particularly in Scotland, which have given rise to instances of the surname. Blackburn (in Lancashire) is recorded in the famous Domesday Book of 1086 as “Blacheburne”, and later in 1187 as “Blakeburn”. This placename, and all of the others, share the same meaning and derivation. This is “the dark-coloured stream”, from the Olde English pre 7th Century “blaec”, meaning black, with “burna”, a stream. In Lancashire, the stream from which the town was named is now called the Blackwater.
Fletcher – This famous northern family name is believed to have derived from the Germanic pre 7th Century personal compound name “Fulcher”. The introduction into England was probably by the Normans, and the name translates as “people’s army” from “folk”, plus “heri”, army. The development from Fulcher to Fletcher is both dialectal and academic, and may have arisen as a result of recordings being undertaken by a lay person of limited ability, rather than the original clerks or scribes. The name as Fletcher is normally associated with arrow making: a “fletcher” is someone who attaches feather flights to the shaft of an arrow. It also refers to a seller of arrows.
Mercer – Although it is of early medieval French origin, this is an English and Scottish occupational surname for a trader, or merchant. It derives from the Old French word “mercier” or “merchier”, from the Latin “mercarius”, as agent derivative from “merx, mercis”, merchandise. The word may have been introduced by the Normans after the Conquest of 1066. During the Middle Ages the term was used particularly of someone who dealt in textile fabrics, especially the expensive and luxurious types of cloth such as silks, satins, and velvets. Job-descriptive surnames originally denoted the actual occupation of the namebearer, and later became hereditary.
Lucas – Recorded in over one hundred spelling forms ranging from Lucas, Luke, Luck and Luckett (English and Scottish), Lucas and Lucaud (France), Luca (Italy), Luk, Lucker and Lauks (Germany), Luasek and Kasek (Czech), Lukasik (Poland), Lukashevich (Ukraine), Lukovic (Croatia), and many more, this is a 12th century surname of several possible origins. For most nameholders it probably derives from the ancient Greek given name “Loucas”, meaning the man from Lucania, formerly a region of Italy. As such it was probably a Crusader name. This was a name associated with the various Christian Crusades in the 12th centuries with knights from all countries in Europe, who attempted to wrest control of the Holy Land, and specifically Jerusalem, from the Muslim grip. All failed, but returning warriors often gave their children names associated with the biblical region, and this was one of them. However the surname can also be of French locational origins, from the town of Luick in Flanders.
Devine – This surname is generally accepted as being of Old French origin, and as such was introduced into England by the Normans after the Conquest of 1066. However it is not as simple as that at all. The name is also well recorded in Ireland, and has been since before the 15th century. Whether this is also as a result of a Norman-Welsh “importation” at the time of the invasion by Strongbow, earl of Pembroke in 1169, or whether it is an anglicisation of the Gaelic O’Daimhin, is far from clear. Possibly both may well be the answer. Certainly in England the name is one of that large group of early surnames that were gradually created from the habitual use of a nickname. In this instance the nickname was given with either literal or ironic intentions, and is derived from the French word “devin”, meaning excellent or perfect. This was originally from the Latin “divinus”, divine or god-like, from “deus”, meaning god.
Whiteside – This name, of Anglo-Saxon origin, derives from two possible origins. Firstly, it is likely that it is of locational origin from places called Whiteside in Northern England and Scotland, for example Whiteside in Cumberland, Whiteside Hill in Scotland, and Whiteside Pike in Westmorland. These placenames are composed of the Olde English pre 7th Century words “hwit”, white, and “side”, slope of a hill. Another source derives the surname from a curious medieval nickname “white side”, probably given to one with a conspicuous streak of white hair, from the same elements as above. The surname itself first appears in records in the early 13th Century
Rawling – This surname, while ultimately of Old Scandinavian origin, is a patronymic form of the Old French personal name “Raulin” and Middle English “Rawlin”. These personal names are double diminutives of “Raw”, a shortened form of Ralph, from the Old Norse personal name “Radwulf”, composed of the Germanic elements “rad”, counsel, advice and “-wulf”, wolf, with the Anglo-Norman French diminutive suffixes “-el”, and “-in”. The “-son”, ending indicates a patronymic form, from the personal name. In the modern idiom, the surnames Rawlin, Rallin(g), Rawlyns, Rawlison and Rawlingson also derive from this source, and are found widespread in England. One source states that Rawlinsons are numerous in Furness and Cumberland.
Gillett – from a pet form of the personal names Giles, Julian, or William. Topographic name for someone living at the top of a glen or ravine, from northern Middle English gil(l) ‘glen’ + heved ‘head’.
Crookall – Recorded as Crook, Crooke, Crookall, Crookhill, Crookham, and probably others, this is an English residential surname. It has a number of possible origins. The first is medieval and denotes residence either at one of the many places called Crook or Crook Hall, both in County Durham, Crook Hill, also in Durham, Crookham in Berkshire, or from living by a ‘crok’, meaning an area of ground around a hill, a crook. Secondly the origin may be an occupational surname for a maker or seller of crooks and hooks used mainly in agriculture. Thirdly the origin is from the Old Norse nickname ‘krokr’, meaning crocked, and originally used of someone with a hunch back, and used in England as a early personal name.
Cornthwaite – This is a Northern English locational surname, of late medieval origins. It derives from the Olde English “cweorn” meaning corn, and the Norse Viking “tveit” – a meadow or clearing. The surname, and all the early recordings, suggest that it derived from a hamlet or village called Cornthwaite or similar spelling, in Lancashire, but the place itself has completely disappeared. This is not in itself totally unusual, some five thousand British surnames are known to originate from now “lost” medieval villages, of whom the only reminder, is the surviving surname. The early church registers of the village of Warton in North Lancashire, include several examples of the surname. This suggests that Cornthwaite was near to Warton, and was probably a small hamlet or even a single farm, that was “cleared” under the Enclosure Acts of the 16th century.
Cookson – This name is one of the patronymic forms of Cook, itself deriving from the Old English pre 7th Century “coc”, ultimately from the Latin “Coquus”, a cook, and originally given as an occupational name to one who sold cooked meats, baked pies, or kept an eating house.
Cobb – This interesting name, variations of which are Cobbe, Cobb, Cobson, and Copson, is of early medieval English origin, and is an example of the many early surnames that were gradually created during the Middle Ages from the habitual use of a nickname. In this instance, the nickname, or byname, recorded in Cornwall in 1201 as “Cobba”, derives from a term meaning “lump”, found in both Olde English and Old Norse, and used to denote a large, well built, impressive man. The equivalent byname in Old Norse is recorded as “Kobbi”, and the examples of the surname Cobb or Cobbe found in the eastern counties of England are probably derived from this source. In some cases, the surname may represent a short form of the male personal name “Jacob”, from the hebrew “Yaakov”, which is traditionally held to mean “he supplanted”, from the biblical story of Esau and Jacob.
Banfield – This surname recorded in the spellings Bamfield, Bampfield, Banfield and Banfill, is a post medieval English locational name from the parish of Weston-Bampfylde near Castle Cary, in the county of Somerset. The name derives from the pre 7th century Olde English ‘bean’ as in the vegetables and ‘feld’, an area of open land cleared for agricultural use.
Crome – This name has two possible origins: the first being a metonymic occupational name for a maker or seller of hooks, deriving from the medieval English “crome” or “cromb”, itself coming from the Olde English pre 7th century “crumb” meaning “bent”, or “crooked”. It is also possible that “crome” was given as a surname\nickname to a bent or stooping person. The surname is first recorded at the end of the 12th Century. A second distinct possibility is that the name is of locational origin either from Croom in East Yorkshire, (so called from the Olde English “crohum” a narrow valley), or from Croome in Worcestershire, (from the Welsh “crwm” crooked, referring to an old river).
Dakers – This surname, of Anglo-Saxon origin, is a topographical name for a “dweller by a plot of arable land”. The derivation is from the Olde English pre 7th Century “aecer” meaning plot of arable land, with the later fusion of the Norman preposition “de”. Topographical surnames were among the earliest created, since both natural and man-made features in the landscape provided easily recognisable distinguishing names in the small communities of the Middle Ages. The surname may also be locational from Acre, in Norfolk, recorded as “Acre” in the Domesday Book of 1086.