Site Logo


Surnames that are derived from nicknames form the broadest category of surnames. They are fascinating because they show us that the mind of Medieval man worked very much like our own. There are descriptive names like Black or Brown but also more inventive and humorous creations. The people who gave these names to others had an earthy sense of humour and the nicknames given to our ancestors also tell us something about the original bearer of the surname that we might never have otherwise known.

The more typical nicknames describe the physical appearance of the person. A dark haired or swarthy person would be named Black. Somebody pale skinned or white haired would be named White. The natural extension of this would be to point out a particular feature such as Whitehead for somebody with a shock of white hair for example.

Some nicknames were complimentary like Fair or Fairchild, Good and Trueman, which all speak well of the original bearer. But some less than desirable characters have bequeathed surnames such as Sly and Smellie to their unfortunate descendants for ever after.

Medieval man was very blunt and straight forward in this respect and seemed to be pretty indifferent to the feelings of others even if they were lame or deformed. A crippled person might be called Cripwell. If they also had a hunchback they might be called Crome, Crimp or Crook. The names look and sound so similar because they are all derived in some way from the Middle English words crome meaning bent and crypel, to creep. There was no political correctness as far as medieval man was concerned and he was quite forthright about drawing attention to these distinguishing physical attributes.

Sometimes, especially in a small community it may have been necessary only to point out a particular part of the body for everybody to know who you were talking about. Just saying Foot, Hand or Head would be enough to recognise a person with a peculiarity or deformity in that part of the body. Someone who walked oddly might be called Sheepshanks, Cruikshanks or just Shanks.

A person who liked to wear big boots might be called Boot. If he wore a cape he might be called Cape. Other items of clothing which gave rise to surnames are Capron, Capper, Hood and Hatt.

The way in which a person behaved might be described and attributed by likening that person to an animal. So we find surnames such as Bird, Crow and Sparrow for quiet, raucous and chirpy people respectively. Someone aggressive and threatening might be called a Bullock or in the north of England he might be known as Stott from the Middle English for a Steer. Animal characteristics were attributed to men called Fox who was cunning, Stagg who was strong and showy and even Mutton who was sheep-like!

It may be that their temperament might be directly alluded to as in Gentle, Meek or Mild in contrast to Loud, Wild and Tempest, a nickname for a person with a blustery temperament. There were Proud men and Merry men as well as Sadd and Hardy individuals.

Anything out of the ordinary might give rise to a nickname in medieval times just as it does to today. Nicknames arise from any difference in appearance or manner that the bearer might display or from an event or incident that brought him fame or infamy.

Particular occasions may be commemorated by a nickname, though we may never know what these events were. Surnames such as Wedlock and Death celebrate important things that happened in an individual’s life and Triplett an unusual birth, especially should all the children survive. The surname Chance perhaps comes from someone who had survived an accident by a remarkable piece of luck.

Wealth and standing might make a person stand out. Farthing, Halfpenny and Penny no doubt referred to the poorer end of the social scale whilst Shilling and Crown were somewhat more affluent. Clearly not all the Kings, Princes, Dukes, Earls and Bishops today are descended from people who held these exalted positions and it seems likely that their ancestors probably played these parts in pageants or plays or were being mocked for their airs and graces.

Seasonal names are fairly common nicknames and became the surnames Summer and Winter, which may describe a person’s personality, sunny or frosty, but more likely the time of year in which he was born. This gives rise to names such as Christmas, Noel and Yule for those born on Christmas Day. The Midwinter festival was indeed the time to be Jolly since this surname has the same origin as Yule, jolif , in Old French which gives rise to the name Joliffe as well. January and Janaways commemorate birthdates and February gives us the names Feveral and Feaveryear. There are many other surnames from the months of the year in which a person was born or perhaps found as an orphan such as March, April and May.

Just as we do today medieval man delighted in creating new names as nicknames. He it was who added the cock to Alcock, Johncock, Hancock, Mycock and Hiscock. Cock was a general nickname for a strutting young blade of the parish and would be added to Alan, John, Hann, Michael and Henry to form these names. Playing on words was common at the time and created pet forms of names such as Dodge aand Hodge for Roger and Dobb and Dobbin from Robin which in turn was a pet form of Robert. Walter gave us Watt, Watkin and Watling. Kidd come from Kit which was short for Christopher but William may claim the most wide ranging shortened and altered nicknames from Wilcock, Wilmott, Wilkin, Willett and Wyatt through to Gilham and Gillett from the original French spelling Guillaume which came over the Channel with William the Conqueror.

 Did you know?

 Names tell of customs and pastimes and special days such as Loveday, a day set aside for the villagers to settle their differences and patch up relationships with their enemies. It was not all hard work for medieval man, there were Sabbaths and saints days to celebrate and, in order to recover from these there were wake days which became weekdays, the days in between the feasts! A person born on such a day might be called Hayday or Halliday. King was a name for a person who played that part in the plays that entertained the people on feast days of which there were very many, up to sixty in a year. Green might refer to the man who played the Green man in the May Day celebrations. Lord refers to the person who played the Lord of Misrule in the parish Yuletide festivities. Postle refers to a person who played one of the apostles in a play or pageant.

Bawdy names:

 We take the name of England’s foremost dramatist for granted, but William Shakespeare’s surname was not only the nickname for a belligerent person but also for an exhibitionist. So to was Wagstaff, an obscene nickname for a medieval ‘flasher’ as was Waghorn. Horn sometimes referred to a husband whose wife was having an affair with another man. Longstaff was well endowed and Hardstaff had a more or less permanent erection, or would have it believed to be so. Spendlove was free with his affections as was Lovelace, originally Loveless who could not form a lasting relationship. Shacklady was a bawdy nickname for a man suspected of having an affair with a lady higher than him in social rank


The List:

 Agnew: meek or pious from Old Fench agneau, lamb

Ayer: heir to a title or fortune

Ball: a short fat person

Bass: a lowly or short man

Bay: chestnut or auburn hair

Beal: handsome from Old French bel, fair

Bean: friendly, aimiable

Beard: having a beard (most men were clean shaven)

Begg: small from Gaelic beag, small

Belcher: beautiful face from Old French bel chere

Benbow: an archer

Breakspear: successful warrior

Breeze: an irritating person from Middle English for a gad fly

Coe: a jackdaw

Carless: a carefree person

Chew: a talkative or thieving person

Chubb: fat and sluggish like the fish

Cockayne: idle dreamer

Doggett: abusive term from a diminutive of dog

Dixie: nickname for a chorister from Latin dixi I have spoken

Doe: mild and gentle

Dolittle: name for a lazy man

Dragon: standard bearer in a procession Old French for snake, the shape of the banner

Early: manly, noble, like an earl

Eagle: sharp-eyed

Edmead: humble from Old English eadmede, easy

Fairfax: having beautiful long hair

Fairweather: a sunny temperament

Farrant: grey from Old English meaning ‘iron grey’

Fear: a sociable person, from Old English feare, comrade

Fitt: a polite and amiable person

Frost: someone with an icy unbending disposition

Fry: small

Gandy: wearer of gloves (gante in Old French)

Grant: tall, large from Old French grand, large

Gray, grey hair

Grewcock: tall and scrawny, from Middle English grue, a crane

Guyler: treacherous, guileful

Hardiman: brave or foolhardy

Hare: a swift runner

Hasty: impetuous

Hendy: pleasant and kind

Idle: lazy

Jay: a showy person

Joy: a cheerful person

Justice: fair minded

Kay: left handed, Danish kei, left

Lamb: meek and inoffensive

Large: generous

Lawless: licentious

Leppard: stealthy

Lightbody: cheerful and busy

Lightfoot: fast runner

Little: a small man or, ironically, a large man!

Littley: small eyes

Longfellow: tall, good companion

Makepeace: a person skilled at negotiation

Mallett: an unfortunate person, Old French  maleit, accursed

Mildmay: tame, gentle

Moody: courageous, arrogant

Moult: a bald man

Nice: foolish, simple

Nightingale: somebody with a fine voice

Nunn: a pious and demure man

Oliphant: a large ponderous person

Pace: even tempered

Pardoe: nickname from the oath par Dieu, by God

Pate: a bald man

Peel: a tall thin man. Anglo Norman French for a stake.

Penny: a wealthy man

Pratt: a clever man

Pook: a goblin, evil spirit

Pretty: fine or handsome

Prince: a title won in a contest of skill

Pye: talkative or theivish (from magpie)

Quarrell: a trouble maker

Rank: powerful, emotional from Old English    ranc proud, rebellious

Read: red hair

Revell: a boisterous person

Root: cheerful, from Middle English rote, glad

Rouse: red haired

Rutter: an unscrupulous person, from Old French  routier, a robber

Smart: brisk, active

Smillie: a person smelly even by medieval standards

Snell: quick, lively

Snow: someone with very white hair

Speed: fortunate, lucky

Springer: a lively person

Squirrel: resembling a squirrel

Stack: a large man like a haystack

Swan: pure

Todd: cunning as a fox

Trick: a cunning person

Turtle: mild and gentle

Twigg: a thin person

Vaisey; cheerful

Venture: bold, adventurous

Viggars: strong and lusty

Wale: well liked

Ware: careful

Warr: a soldier or a belligerent person



Famous People:

John Snow….has very white hair!!

Carole Smillie……may be squeaky clean but her ancestor certainly was not!!

David Frost…..the right name for an interrogative interviewer?

Phyllis Dixey….a pioneer striptease artist in the 1940s

Danny Grewcock…English rugby forward, anything but scrawny!

Stephen Fry…..his name means small. He is huge!

Copyright © 2016 by Stephen Thomas