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Origins of Surnames

Ever since antiquity, one of the chief requirements of society has been the ability to distinguish individuals by their own name. Originally people only had one name, but as society became more complex, this name became peculiar to the person concerned. The Romans perfected a system whereby an individual had a four-part name; the third part being the cognomen (surname), which indicated divisions of clans into various families. After the fall of Rome, it was not until several centuries later that it was again felt necessary to distinguish every clan or stock by a surname - the family name which has now been incorporated legally into society. The essential characteristic of a surname is its continuous transmission from father to son indicating the stock from which a family descends. Hereditary surnames probably came into use because of the need to identify individuals, their descendants and families. This was principally due to the hereditary nature of land ownership, title and office, which required proof of affinity before transfer to the next heir. When these rights were committed to writing a fixed surname was used to refer to subsequent holders in a particular family. The tax system also required the regulation of surnames to identify families assessed to pay certain dues.

It could be said that the Normans introduced hereditary surnames to England, although some surnames had existed among the Saxons and Vikings before 1066. They were adopted at different rates in different localities and levels of society. Studies of manor court rolls has shown that counties close to central government in London used hereditary surnames from the 13th century, while those lying farthest away, like Lancashire, did not use them on a wide scale until as late as the 15th century.

People nowadays are very particular about the correct spelling of their surname, but a fixed spelling has generally only been adopted since the 19th century. Vicars and legal scribes wrote down the surname as it sounded to them, and different dialects confused the matter further. Genealogists need to have an open mind, and note down all the variants of the surname they are researching, exactly as spelt in the records.

Tracing the origin and distribution of a surname depends somewhat on the rarity of the name, but several sources can help:

Indexes of Births, Marriages and Deaths from 1837
The International Genealogical Index c.1538-1875
Telephone Directories (complete country sets in Reference Libraries)
Dictionaries of Surnames
The Guild of One-Name Studies

With rare exceptions, virtually all British surnames are based on or have grown from one of 13 starting points:

1)Names derived from father's first name (patronymics)
This category accounts for by far the largest number of modern names e.g. Jones, Fitzhugh, MacDonald, Simpson, O`Brien

2) Names derived from other relations
e.g. Margetson, Neave (the medieval word for nephew), Cousins, Godson, Kinsman

3) Names derived from physical characteristics
e.g. Whitehead, Brown, Longfellow, Goodbody

4) Names derived from personality traits
e.g. Swift, Hardy, Fox, Wise, Doolittle

5) Names derived from plays and drama
Some of our ancestors took their names from the roles they played in village pageants e.g. King, Pope, Abbot, Lord

6) Names derived from literature
The Bible is the main generator here e.g. Aaron, Joseph, Luke, Jude

7) Names derived from occupations
e.g. Smith, Taylor, Clark, Potter, Wright, Archer, Cooper, Butcher, Fisher, Carpenter, Farmer

8) Names derived from sayings
Once, England was full of hawkers proclaiming their wares. Often the cry became the surname e.g. Goodall (from `Good Ale`) and Goodcheap (a bargain)

9) Names which indicate nationality
e.g. English, Welsh, Norman, Fleming

10) Names associated with natural landmarks
e.g. Banks, Ford, Field, Moore, Westbrook

11) Names associated with man-made landmarks
e.g. Bridges, Bell, Castle, Hall, Towers

12) Names which are status-oriented
These date from Anglo-Saxon and Norman feudal systems e.g. Beadle, Reeve, Sargent, Steward, Chamberlain, Knight, Marshall, Spencer

13) Names indicating place of origin (village, town , county)
e.g. Wakefield, Bolton, Kent, Goldthorpe


 © Angela Petyt 2001. All rights reserved.

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