Coat of Arms and Surname History


Discovering the Meaning of Surnames

Have you ever wondered about your surname meaning?
Well, you are not alone. Many people across the world are searching for surname meanings all of the time and once you start to look into this fascinating subject you can lose yourself in the etymology (origin of words) and history of not only the meaning of your own surname but the meaning of surnames down through the ages, too.

Typically surname meanings fall into one of four categories:

  • Topographical (or Geographical)
  • Patronymic
  • Occupational
  • Descriptive

But before we look into what these mean...Did you know that in Western culture we didn’t always use surnames? In fact, surnames were first introduced during the Roman occupation of Britain as a means of identifying people. Usually a surname was reserved only for the male citizen-class, or above, and these were often very descriptive. After the Romans left in the early 5th century, England was invaded by a number of surrounding countries and it was the Normans who eventually defeated the English in 1066; it was also these conquerors who laid the foundations for an English surname ‘revolution.’

Many of the English peasants had no need for a surname or ‘last name’ as they knew their own kinsfolk and the other local villagers, but the landowners and lords needed to be able to identify their peasants for taxation purposes and so bestowed upon them a surname. Initially surnames were adopted by the ruling class as way of identifying themselves, some names were very popular, i.e. William, John, Edward and Richard and without a further descriptor these men would often be confused with another of the same forename. So, in the first instance they were identified by the land that they owned (Dudley) or their occupation (Smith) or a particularly glaring physical attribute (Redhead).

Let’s take a look at the four types of surname.

The first, topographical surnames, were some of the earliest to be used and illustrate that some surname meanings are very easy to determine, for example, Atwell meaning at the well and similarly Attwood. There are many examples of topographical surname meanings, here are just a few; Wood, Shaw, Thorp, Comb, Gates and Clough.

Patronymic surnames are usually handed down from father to child and thus surname meanings here are relatively easy to derive, for example John Williamson is exactly as it seems that John is Williams’ son and similarly the surnames Stevenson, Johnson and Nicholson follow the same pattern. Other examples of patronymic surnames are formed by simply adding an ‘s’, for example; Gibbs and Andrews and there are also names formed by the addition of the prefix “Fitz”; derived from the Norman French “fiz” also meaning son; such as Fitzroy and Fitzherbert. This kind of surname is also referred to as a baptismal name.

Occupational surnames were given, often by the ruling class to the workers and are usually a description of the occupation of the bearer. Examples like Miller, Farmer or Carpenter are more familiar ones but there are also far less obvious names like; Century, a belt maker and Redman, a roof thatcher. On occasion this kind of surname was taken by an official or dignitary to signify their status, like the names King and Lord.

The last type of surname, which while listed as last here, is more likely to have been the first type of surname, that is the ‘descriptive surname’. These were sometimes based upon a unique quality or characteristic, such as Wise, Bold or Strong; although the most basic form was to simply describe someone’s physical appearance or a prominent physical feature of the person and were often developed from a nickname or pet name; surnames such as Broadfoot, Whitehead and Longbeard.

Surname meanings are derived from a number of different factors and as you spend a little time looking into this subject you will discover that it is a truly enlightening and rewarding pursuit.