William Lewis, author of the books 'What's in your Surname?' and 'What's in an English Place-name?'.

Surnames from Words of Affection and Location

DOES YOUR SURNAME END IN ‘-kin’, ‘-kins’. ‘-kiss’, ‘-cock’, ‘-et(t)’, ‘-el(l)’, ‘-in’, ‘-on’, ‘-itt’ or‘-ot(t)’? If it has one of the first three suffixes, then it is certainly a ’diminutive’. If it has one of the other endings, it is likely to be a ‘diminutive’ too. These suffixes, appended to a shortened version of the personal name, were simply an ancient means of expressing a term of endearment when addressing a youngster. We still come across spontaneous examples of them in our modern times: people will sometimes say Daddykins, Bobbykin, Jennykin, babykins and so on, when fondly addressing (or teasing!) a member of the family. Essentially, the suffixes implied something like ‘little’ or even ‘sweet little’. Familiar surnames of this pattern are Adkin (‘little’ Adam), Hipkin (‘little’ Herbert), Parkin (‘little’ Peter) and Malkin (‘little’ Mary).

The home-grown suffix ‘-cock’ often had the same endearing intention: Hitchcock (‘little’ Richard), Hancock (‘little’ John), Adcock (‘little’ Adam) and Babcock (‘little Barbara’). Most examples of these suffixes are seen affixed to boys’ names.

The remaining examples, of the ‘-ell’ and ‘-ott’ pattern, are derived from the post-Conquest Norman French and have the same affectionate implication when added to a shortened personal name: Luckett (‘little’ Luke), Rabbitt (‘little’ Robert), Hewell (‘little’ Hugh), and Evett (‘little’ Eve). Again, it is the male names that received the enduring diminutives.

A curious extension of this process is to be found in the ‘double diminutive’. Familiar surnames like Bartlett, Tomlin and Roblett demonstrate this odd phenomenon. These each contain two of the diminutive elements: Bartlett is Bart + el + ett (from Bartholomew), Tomlin is Tom + el + in (from Thomas) and Roblett is Rob + el + ett (from Robert).

There were other ways of addressing a person affectionately in mediæval times. A simple shortening of an individual’s personal name would suffice: Daw, Heb, Mal and Mag are pleasant abbreviations of David, Herbert, Mary and Margaret. The addition of ‘-y’ will sometimes emphasise the affection, as in Davy and Maggy.


The surnames Hastings, Achurch, Noke, Byfield and Underhill would seem, at first glance, to have little in common. However, they represented straightforward ways of expressing either the place of origin or the location of an individual. If a newcomer to a town was known to have come from Hastings, then why not nickname him after his home town? In his book, ‘Remaines Concerning Britain’ (1605), the antiquary and historian William Camden writes, “Neither was there, or is there, any town, village, hamlet, or place in England, but hath made names to families.” Most of us can probably name someone whose surname is also a place-name. Of course, many places that existed in mediæval times have since disappeared for various reasons – disease, famine, flood and land clearance, being the most common reasons – leaving behind an interesting group of surnames. Eccersley, Insall, Postlethwaite, Smithwick and Trefusis are surnames that recall abandoned villages.

A man (or sometimes a woman) whose cottage stood near to the church or who of one looked after the church, might easily be referred to as Achurch, that is, ‘atte church’. If a dwelling stood by a prominent old oak tree, its occupant might well acquire the nickname Noke – that is, a shortened form of ‘atten oak’. The same explanations will apply to Byfield and Underhill, which speak for themselves.

Within our surnames, there is a huge number of such location names to be found, describing natural features such as hills, ridges, headlands, valleys, fields, moors, marshes, heaths, woods, meadows, rivers, streams and more.

Our surname heritage is rich and enormously varied and can offer a lifetime’s absorbing study.

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