Surnames from Two Sources – Occupations and Relationships
THE GOLDEN AGE OF SURNAME FORMATION in Britain and in England in particular, was from the late 11th century until the middle of the 15th century. The new Norman approach to civil administration was based on detailed record keeping and the need to identify individuals involved in disputes, prosecutions, land ownership, manorial affairs and so on. The common folk themselves generally had no need for anything but a ‘given’ name – Ranulf, Wulfwy, Alwin, Leofeva, Edelina, Alicia – but many would have acquired from their fellows a descriptive nickname of some sort and it is from this category that we have inherited the largest group of our surnames.
A simple nickname – that is, ‘an eke name’, an extra name, could arise from almost any feature of a person: a physical imperfection, an outstanding ability, a distinctive mannerism and so forth. However, another important source of our surnames is that derived from occupation or office and such labels were usually applied to men. The majority of the population in the 12th and 13th centuries were of peasant stock and worked on the lands of their lords. Any nickname a man acquired would often be descriptive of a particular job – the cowherd, the shepherd, the woodman, the thatcher and the hayward for example. More elevated officials – the bailiff, the reeve, the steward, the chamberlain and the clerk – have also bequeathed us the names of their offices in the form of surnames. The surnames deriving from the ten occupations I have just listed are easy to detect: Coward, Shepherd, Woodman, Thatcher, Hayward, Bailey,Reeve, Stewart, Chamberlain and Clark. There are many hundreds of such names, with large numbers of spelling variations and compounds.
Yet another means of singling out a person, either in conversation or in an official document, is of course by mentioning the name of the individual’s father, or sometimes the mother. This is indeed a very ancient way of identification, for we see it first in the Old Testament book of Genesis (chapter 5), where the succeeding generations of Adam are described in terms of son-to-father relationships. Later, in chapter 10 of Genesis the descent of Noah is similarly revealed.
This relationship appears most simply in the hundreds of our surnames that end in ‘-son’, a relic of the Anglo-Saxon ‘sunu’, meaning ‘son’. The simple suffix
‘-s’ also signifies descent or possession, as in Richards, Walters, Margetts and Monks. The names Cousins, Mothers and Widdows too, clearly express a specific relationship. However, other relationships are less obvious: Eames derives from ‘éam’, meaning uncle and Odams has its origin in ‘-āðum’ (athum) , which could mean both son-in-law and brother-in-law.
Scottish surnames traditionally record their ancestry with the prefixes ‘Mac-', ‘Mc-' followed by the personal name – MacDonald, McDougall – or by a title – Macpherson, that is, ‘of the parson’. Many names of the original Irish too, signify possession through the prefix ‘O’-', as in O’Hare (‘of Hehir’ – the angry one) and O’Neil (‘of Néill’ – the champion).
The Welsh had, for many generations, also adopted the 'son of-' pattern. In their case, the word ‘ap’ preceded the personal name of the father: Gwilym ap Huw – Gwilym, son of Huw. This method could lead to many lengthy additions to a man’s name, such as Owen ap Rhys ap Madoc ap Evan. Welsh telephone directories still reveal a few of the old forms: there are examples of ap Dewi, ap Gwent and ap Gwynfor to be found in the Swansea and South-West Wales listings. In 1542, King Henry VIII’s ‘Act Uniting England and Wales’ gave substantial impetus to the adoption of the English naming system by Welsh families.
This introduction has referred mostly to the surnames that have arisen through occupation, office and through relationships of various kinds. There are other sources of our surnames too – words of affection, places and locations and personal names. These themes appear in my other entries.
Return to Article List