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What’s in a Name? Where does your surname come from?

Ever wondered why the phone book has so many Johnsons, Smith’s or Cooper’s listed? How much do you know about your surname or family name and where did it originally come from?

Although Clan names and family names were sometimes used amongst the ancient and Roman nations, it is really the middle ages that bought us the surname as we know it today. After the black death, villages remained remote from each other, and the populations in each area grew. This meant that there was often one or more person with the same name, so in order to differentiate, a description was added. For example, Johnson would indicate the son of john, or Cooper, referring to the man that makes the barrels. Occupation, appearance, family connection and location were often the basis of the surname, and although the spelling and pronunciation may have changed over the centuries with the arrival of foreign invaders and new languages, many of the original names have managed to live on until today.

Occupation names

In a village environment the easiest way to differentiate between people was by occupation, as most jobs were manual and often there was only one barrel maker ( Cooper ), arrow maker ( Fletcher) or builder / craftsman ( Wright ) so telling them apart was easy. Other names that follow the occupational pattern are wood worker ( Turner ), Game keeper ( Parker ), leather tanner ( Barker ), bread maker ( Baker ), fisherman ( Fisher ), priest or one that can read ( Clarke ), guard ( Ward ) or trader ( Chapman ). 

Location Names

You can probably guess that Field, Brooke and North fall into this section easily as they simply describe where a person lives or comes from. Others take their form from the old words used to describe the areas: Shaw, meaning thicket or person from the wood, Murphy which comes from the Gaelic ‘O’Murchadha’ which means descendant from the Sea. Hall refers to one who worked and lived in the Manor house and Holmes comes from the old English ‘Holm’ which means island or low lying land.

Descriptive Surnames

These are a little harder to detect, as some describe the actual physical or personal traits of a person, and also how they conduct them self or what they wear. White, or Brown are easy ones and refer to either skin, hair colour or clothing but Bell may be harder to spot. Bell indicates someone is handsome or attractive, and Fox refers to someone with red hair or a sly nature. Lewis is a descriptive name but comes from Lowis, Lodovicus which means ‘Renowned, famous in Battle’ the same as King or Cox refers to a person deemed as a chieftan or someone that is important in the village.

Family Connection

As today, the easiest way to describe someone is to make the family connection, for example Ander’s son would become Anderson, and the kin of John would become Jenkins. Young is an obvious one, as it was used to describe the ‘Young’ or child of a person with the same name. Foster is also exactly what is says, one that fostered someone else’s children, this became very popular during the black death where many children were left orphaned.

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