The Origin of Your Surname

The Origin of Your SurnameSurnames did not come in to practice until around 1000AD. This was because there were not enough people really to necessitate this. Important figures in history denoted their importance through a title such as King or Sir, as in King Arthur or Sir Lancelot. They often earned further titles which were like complimentary nicknames such as William the Conqueror. Incidentally, once William of Normandy had conquered Saxon Britain the population began to significantly increase meaning that a shift in the practice of identifying people had to take place to ensure differentiation between one person and the next. The Norman nobility also needed to ensure that their legacy would remain within their own families rather than share with the Saxon natives. So they began to hand down the name of their ancestral seats to their children.

In the Middle Ages, however, the practice of single names for everyone began to change as the population had now been significantly boosted. People had begun referring to people by their occupation such as Harold the Fletcher (archer) and their children as 'son of Harold' or 'daughter of Harold'. This began to change as surnames came into practice although they might refer to occupation and Harold might thus become Harold Fletcher but his son may have had another occupation and the surname might have stuck with him, instead in these early stages. He might be Robert Miller, for example. Occupation was a common means of acquiring a surname and there are many remaining today. Names such as Bishop, Carter, Miller and Taylor (tailor) are still well known. It was not simply common practice in England but in Europe and beyond which is why the Germans still have Muller (Miller) as a common surname. These occupational names also travelled to places such as America and Australia, along with other surnames, geographically dispersing them. However there were other means from which surnames derived. At this point in the Middle Ages, however, the traditional passing of the surname to all males born into the family began.

The origins of these first groups of surnames that began in the middle ages can be divided into four main categories. The first is patronymics whereby the son or daughter of the father is denoted by a suffix or prefix so that Harold Patrick might have given his Norman surname the prefix of 'Fitz' and his son Robert would be now known as Robert Fitzpatrick. Many of the pre-fixes are still commonly circulated such as the Gaelic 'Mac' , the Irish 'O' and Welsh 'Ap' generating many well known names such as 'Macduff' and 'O'Dowd'. Sometimes the names were derived from the mother and it was also likely they might be informed by first names, even nicknames or abbreviations such as MacDonald or MacBeth.

Interestingly nicknames also played a large part in creating surnames. They were often descriptive and usually referred to distinguishing physical features. Many of them: including Armstrong (referring to someone with strong arms), Broadhead (referring to someone with a large head) and Goodman (referring to someone kind-hearted). These might also have merged with those denoted with a prefix. Consider the name Bains and MacBain, for example, this might refer to Bones (a thin man) and the son of Bones.

Geographical location was the other main property of surnames beginning in the Middle Ages. It was likely that this a development amongst the village communities and includes names such as Atwood, Brooks and other more unusual and misleading surnames such as Banker which refers to someone who dwelt on a hillside rather than the occupation of a banker.

Of course some names were also created or changed through migration. It is a common myth that people changed their names when docking at Ellis Island. It was an unlikely case scenario as people needed documents proving who they were to be allowed onto land. The shipping records are a good way to trace people who you suspect may have changed their name when moving abroad.

People did make name changes when moving abroad in an attempt to fit in with the culture as part of the naturalisation process. However another way in which names were changed was actually determined by the clerks and teachers, particularly in America. Names they could not pronounce or spell were changed by these people thus modifying existing surnames or creating new ones once more. It is worth investigating the surname traditions of that particular country, trying different spellings or looking at occupations particular to that country to find out more.

You might determine the origins of your own surname by looking at it in the context of the above traditions.

Next: Using Your Local Archive Office