1. Parenting
Send to a Friend via Email

Discuss in my forum

English Surnames - Meanings & Origins

What Does Your English Last Name Mean?

By

English surnames** as we know them today -- family names passed down intact from father to son to grandson -- began in England as early as the eleventh century. Such hereditary names were not universally prevalent and settled, however, prior to the era of the Reformation in sixteenth century England. It is conjectured that the introduction of parish registers in 1538 was a great influence in this, as a person entered under one surname at baptism would not be likely to be married under another name, and buried under a third. Some areas of England came later to the use of surnames, however. It was not until the late seventeenth century that many families in Yorkshire and Halifax took permanent surnames.

** See meanings and origins of Top 100 English Surnames below

Origins of English Last Names

Surnames in England generally developed from four major sources:
  • Patronymic & Matronymic Surnames - These are surnames derived from baptismal or Christian names to indicate family relationship or descent. Some baptismal or given names have become surnames without any change in form. Others added an ending. son may have formed his surname by adding -s (more common in the South and West of England) or -son (preferred in the northern half of England) to his father's name. The latter -son suffix was also sometimes added to the mother's name. English surnames ending in -ing (from the British engi, "to bring forth," and -kin generally indicate a patronymic or family name as well.

  • Occupational Surnames - Many English surnames developed from a person's job or trade. Three common English surnames -- Smith, Wright and Taylor -- are excellent examples of this. A name ending in -man or -er usually implies such a trade name, as in Chapman (shopkeeper), Barker (tanner) and Fiddler. On occasion a rare occupational name can provide a clue to the family's origin. For example, Dymond (dairymen) are commonly from Devon and Arkwright (maker of arks or chests) are generally from Lancashire.

  • Descriptive Surnames - Based on a unique quality or physical feature of the individual, these surnames often developed from nicknames or pet names. Most refer to an individual's appearance - color, complexion, or physical shape - such as Armstrong. A descriptive surname may also refer to an individual's personal or moral characteristics, such as Goodchild, Puttock (greedy) or Wise.

  • Geographical or Local Surnames - These are names derived from the location of the homestead from which the first bearer and his family lived, and are generally the most common origin of English surnames. They were first introduced into England by the Normans, many of whom were known by the name of their personal estate. Thus, many English surnames derive from the name of an actual town, county, or estate. County names in Great Britain, such as Cheshire, Kent and Devon have been commonly adopted as surnames. A second class of local surnames derived from cities and towns, such as Hertford, Carlisle and Oxford. Other local surnames derive from descriptive landscape features such as hills, woods, and streams which describe the original bearer's residence. This is the origin of surnames such as Sykes (marshy stream), Bush and Attwood (near a wood). Surnames which begin with the prefix At- can especially be attributed as a name with local origins. By- was also sometimes used as a prefix for local names.

TOP 100 COMMON ENGLISH SURNAMES & THEIR MEANINGS

1. SMITH 51. MITCHELL
2. JONES 52. KELLY
3. WILLIAMS 53. COOK
4. TAYLOR 54. CARTER
5. BROWN 55. RICHARDSON
6. DAVIES 56. BAILEY
7. EVANS 57. COLLINS
8. WILSON 58. BELL
9. THOMAS 59. SHAW
10. JOHNSON 60. MURPHY
11. ROBERTS 61. MILLER
12. ROBINSON 62. COX
13. THOMPSON 63. RICHARDS
14. WRIGHT 64. KHAN
15. WALKER 65. MARSHALL
16. WHITE 66. ANDERSON
17. EDWARDS 67. SIMPSON
18. HUGHES 68. ELLIS
19. GREEN 69. ADAMS
20. HALL 70. SINGH
21. LEWIS 71. BEGUM
22. HARRIS 72. WILKINSON
23. CLARKE 73. FOSTER
24. PATEL 74. CHAPMAN
25. JACKSON 75. POWELL
26. WOOD 76. WEBB
27. TURNER 77. ROGERS
28. MARTIN 78. GRAY
29. COOPER 79. MASON
30. HILL 80. ALI
31. WARD 81. HUNT
32. MORRIS 82. HUSSAIN
33. MOORE 83. CAMPBELL
34. CLARK 84. MATTHEWS
35. LEE 85. OWEN
36. KING 86. PALMER
37. BAKER 87. HOLMES
38. HARRISON 88. MILLS
39. MORGAN 89. BARNES
40. ALLEN 90. KNIGHT
41. JAMES 91. LLOYD
42. SCOTT 92. BUTLER
43. PHILLIPS 93. RUSSELL
44. WATSON 94. BARKER
45. DAVIS 95. FISHER
46. PARKER 96. STEVENS
47. PRICE 97. JENKINS
48. BENNETT 98. MURRAY
49. YOUNG 99. DIXON
50. GRIFFITHS 100. HARVEY
 

Source: ONS - Top 500 Surnames Registered 1991 - May 2000

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.