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Arts & CulturePick of the PastWhere British surnames come from

Where British surnames come from

by Brent Eades

I like knowing where words come from — their etymology (from the Greek etymon + logia, ‘the truth of words’).

The origin of last names — or family names or surnames or cognomens — is especially interesting because it often reveals someone’s medieval ancestry.

Last names weren’t really needed until a place grew past a certain size. Imagine a small village with a few families in it. One of the men is named Steven. So far so good. Then another Steven moves to town. How do you distinguish him from the first Steven?

You could refer to how he looks. The new Steven has dark hair. So he becomes “Steven the Black” — Steven Black. Or he’s on the small side — Steven Little. He makes wagons for a living — Steven Wagner. He bought that nice little place out by the lake — Steven Waters.

Or maybe Steven didn’t arrive in the village as an outsider; he was born into it as Peter’s son. So he becomes, yes — Steven Peterson.

In Britain, most people didn’t have last names until about the 14th century. Most of those names came from those four traits: what you look like; what you do; where you live; who your father was.

The “what you do” list is interesting. You might not recognize some of these names as trades or professions because they no longer exist. Others are obvious once you think about them for a moment. Examples:

  • Archer
  • Bailey (the bailiff)
  • Baker
  • Brewer
  • Chandler (candle maker)
  • Clark (clerk, one who wrote things down)
  • Cook
  • Cooper (barrel maker)
  • Carpenter
  • Faulkner (a falconer — falcons were used for hunting)
  • Fisher
  • Fletcher (arrow maker)
  • Fuller (the fulling process was essential in turning wool into good fabric)
  • Knight
  • Miller
  • Mason (masons built things of stone)
  • Parker (a gamekeeper — ‘parks’ were hunting preserves for the wealthy)
  • Porter (porters carry things)
  • Smith (a “smith” makes things of metal)
  • Taylor (tailor)
  • Thatcher (a maker of thatched roofs)
  • Turner (turned things on a lathe, such as wooden bowls)
Who your father was

A lot of these patronymic names are obvious because of the ‘son’ tacked on the end — Jackson, Wilson, Thompson, Benson, Johnson. Less obvious are those with simply an ‘s’ on the end. These are often, but not always, Welsh names and give us, for example:

  • Jones (Jon’s son)
  • Evans
  • Harris
  • Davies
  • Lewis
  • Rogers
Big Macs

Mac and Mc are the Gaelic equivalents of patronymics in Scottish and Irish names. David MacDonald is David, son of Donald.

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