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What’s in a name?

The introduction of surnames throughout the British Isles was not uniform. Ireland already had some inherited names based on tribal loyalties before the Normans invaded. So did the highland Scots, but the lowland Scottish followed the English pattern of adopting a fixed inherited second name a little later and the Welsh not until the 16th century, a process that was still continuing in the 1700s.

The practice of using a Surname was begun in Britain by Norman gentry who wished to set themselves apart from the conquered Anglo-Saxons. They were following a fashion begun in the south of France and Venice and they also wanted to identify people so they could be sure they were taxed and carried out their duties. It must be remembered that the Normans were an occupying force at this time who brutally subdued the population. Previous to this time the feudal system meant that families and thus the people were known to their local Lords of the Manor so there was no pressing need for surnames.

Inherited names trickled down through the social structure, first used by the nobility and the wealthy landowners and then the merchants and commoners. The first permanent names were those of barons and landowners who took their names from the manors and lands that they held. These names became fixed because these lands were inherited. Status seeking middle and working class then imitated the practices of the nobility.

As populations grew in the city and Government came to depend more and more on written records, personal names were clearly no longer sufficient to identify people for social and administrative reasons and the practice of taking a surname spread to the countryside.

The handing on of a surname has become a matter of pride, but why a particular name was chosen by or given to an individual can only be speculated upon. They have, though, come down to us in various ways. They have come from the name of an ancestor, his job or calling, his surroundings or because of a particular nickname commemorating a particular trait or incident in his life. Most surnames have evolved from four sources which then divide into differing types.


Family Names


These are generally accepted to be the oldest form of surname and are derived from a given name. However, they were the last to become fixed and would change at each generation: John’s son William would be known as William Johnson while his son John would be John Williamson. These given names were generally Biblical in origin such as Peter or Paul or Germanic names made up of elements describing desirable qualities such as Richard from ric meaning power and hard meaning brave. Taking on one’s father’s name was the simplest way of distinguishing one John from another. Surnames of this type are found in all European languages and are usually, but not always, comprised of the father’s name and an additional prefix or suffix. So we find in Gaelic mac, Welsh ap, ab, Norman French fitz and suffixes such as son or the simple s as in Robertson or Roberts. Others are Williamson, Jackson etc. When you see names with these additions you can be sure they are almost certainly from people originally named after their father although some may have been named after their grandfather or their mother in cases such as Megson. Other, rarer names record family connections such as Neame which means uncle or Ayer, the heir to a title or fortune.


Local Names


There are two main types of local names: the first of these are those taken from the natural environment that medieval man found all around him so that John who lived at the base of a hill would be called John Underhill one who lived near a landmark tree might be John Oak. Places and habitations are the creation of man and they form the second category of local names whether they come from a particular building and were known as House or from a city which grew out of a settlement such as Birmingham or York which eventually became cities. Some people even took there names from regions and countries such as Fleming, Welsh or France.




Surnames from nicknames or anecdotes commemorate ancestors who stood out from the community in some way. They may have been involved in some memorable event, now perhaps obscured by the passage of time or by a personal peculiarity or tendency. Also other names were shortened or varied in the case of an individual and this set them aside from other villagers. These form the broadest and most miscellaneous class of surnames. Nicknames from physical attributes might be Longfellow, Large or Small. A shy man might be Dove, one who was cunning might be Fox and a gentle person Lamb or Gentle. Physical features might give rise to names such as Brown, Black or Whitehead all describing hair or skin colouring. Deformities might be alluded to with names such as Foot or Hand and events commemorated as in the cases of Tiplady. Times and seasons of birth also gave rise to names such as Feveryear (February) or Winter.


Top 50 Surnames



The Top 50 Most popular Surnames in the United Kingdom in 1996 were the following:



1.Smith             Occupational name

2.Jones             Family name, son of John

3.Williams        Family name, son of William

4.Brown           Nickname, colour of hair or complexion

5.Taylor           Occupational name

6.Davies           Family name, son of David

7.Wilson           Family name, son of William

8.Evans            Family name, son of Evan (Welsh form of John)

9.Thomas         Family name, son of Thomas

10.Johnson       Family name, son of John

11.Roberts       Family name, son of Robert

12.Walker        Occupational name, cloth dresser

13.Wright         Occupational name, maker of machinery or objects

14.Robinson     Family name from a diminutive of Robert

15.Thompson   Family name, son of Thomas

16.White          Nickname, colour of hair

17.Hughes        Family name, son of Hugh

18.Hall             Local name, lived near a large house

19.Edwards      Family name, son of Edward

20.Green          Local name, lived near village green

21.Martin         Family name, son of Martin

22.Wood         Local name, lived near a wood

23.Harris          Family name, son of Harry

24.Lewis          Family name, son of Louis

25.Clarke         Occupational name, scribe or secretary

26.Jackson       Family name, son of Jacob or Jack ( pet form of John)

27.Clark           Occupational name, scribe or secretary

28.Turner         Occupational name, maker of small wooden objects

29.Hill              Local name, lived near a hill

30.Scott           Local name, a Gaelic speaker, from Scotland

31.Moore         Local name, lived near a moor

32.Cooper       Occupational name, maker of wooden vessels

33.Morris         Family name, son of Maurice

34.Ward          Occupational name, a watchman or guard

35.King            Nickname, a person who acted in a haughty manner

36.Watson       Family name, son of Watt (Walter)

37.Baker          Occupational name, a baker

38.Harrison      Family name, son of Harry

39.Morgan       Family name, son of Morien (an old Welsh personal name)

40.Young         Family name, son of identically named father

41.Allen           Family name, son of Alan (an old Celtic personal name)

42.Mitchell       Family name, son of Michel

43.Phillips         Family name, son of Phillip

44.James          Family name, son of James

45.Bell             Occupational name, bellfounder or bellringer

46.Campbell     Nickname, crooked mouth

47.Lee             Local name, lived near a pasture

48.Parker         Occupational name, gamekeeper

49.Kelly           Nickname, Gaelic for troublesome

50.Davis           Family name, son of David




All the major groups of names are represented here. It is interesting to note that names we think of as typically British are often derived from given names that were popular 800 years ago when the Normans appeared on these shores with names such as Louis, Michel and Maurice.


In 1851 a census of the United Kingdom was taken and the top 50 were listed. Clarke, Allen, Phillips, James. Lee and Kelly are the only surnames that feature in 1996 but were not included in the list for 1851 which demonstrates that the top fifty out of an estimated half a million different surnames in the United Kingdom remain amazingly consistent over the years and have probably remained little altered for generations.




Did you know?


Medieval man had a strong sense of irony and would often attribute a seemingly contradictory sobriquet. Think of Little John (or John Little) the giant companion of Robin Hood. This would also result in him naming a large man Small and a short man Long! 

Copyright © 2016 by Stephen Thomas