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Understanding English Surnames

suranmes-nameFamily English surnames rarely existed until well after the year 1066 AD with William the Conqueror invading the island that would become England. What was commonly done was a description for a person such as Thomas the Baker, Norman son of Richard, Henry the Whitehead, Elizabeth of the Field or Joan of York.

Surnames evolved based on those descriptions. Some could be based on where a person lived, most based on an occupation, or on the physical appearance of a person or on the land they lived. The use of ‘son’ became very popular, referring to the ‘son of a specific person’. There also names based on a person being a servant or following of another individual.

Here are some examples of each form:

Occupational Names included Archer, Baker, Brewer, Butcher, Carpenter, Carter, Clark, Cooper, Cook, Dyer, Farmer, Faulkner, Fisher, Fuller, Gardener, Glover, Head, Hunt or Hunter, Judge, Knight, Mason, Page, Parker, Potter, Sawyer, Slater, Smith, Taylor, Thatcher, Turner, Weaver, Woodman, and Wright (or variations such as Cartwright and Wainwright) — and there are many more.

Describing a personal characteristic could also have been a nickname. Names that became surnames included Short, Long, Little, Stern, Strong, Swift, Red, White, Black, Brown and Green (Greene). Some nicknames like ‘Peacock’ meant the person was a bit vain.

From an English place namecould include where the was born, where they lived or where the ancestors were from. It could be a house name, a farm, a hamlet, county or town.Some examples: Bedford, Burton, Hamilton, Hampshire, London or Sutton.

From the name of an estate either that landowner of a manor, castle, or estate adopted that as a surname plus the workers or laborers on that estate also took that name. Some examples include Windsor, Staunton, Warwick and Ernle.    suranmes-tree

From a geographical feature of the landscape can come numerous surnames. Everything from Atwood, Bridge, Brooks, Bush, Camp, Creek, Fields, Forest, Greenwood, Grove, Hill, Knolles, Lake, Moore, Perry, Stone, Wold, Wood, and Woodruff, to name a few.

Patronymic, matrimony, or ancestral names come from a male, female or clan names. For males it can include Benson (“the son of Ben”), Davis, Dawson, Evans, Harris, Harrison, Jackson, Jones (Welsh for John), Nicholson, Richardson, Robinson, Rogers, Simpson, Stephenson, Thompson, Watson, and Wilson. For females it can be Molson (from Moll, for Mary), Madison (from Maud), Emmott (from Emma), and Marriott (from Mary). Clan names which became surnames are Armstrong, Cameron, Campbell, Crawford, Douglas, Forbes, Grant, Henderson, Hunter, MacDonald, and Stewart.

To Honor a Patron there might be Hick’s man (Hickman) or a follower of Patrick (Kilpatrick).

Related genealogy blogs:

Common Surnames

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