The Origin of Surnames

By Tim Lambert

Occupational Surnames

Many surnames are taken from jobs e.g. if a man was a carpenter he might be called John Carpenter and because sons very often followed their father’s occupation the surname stuck. Some occupational surnames are obvious e.g. Smith, Potter, Cooper, Mason, Tailor or Taylor, Spinner, Weaver (Webb was another word for a weaver, a webster was usually a female weaver), Dyer, Thatcher, Tyler, Slater, Miller, Baker, Cheeseman, Spicer, Cook, Fisher, Shepherd, Carter, Clarke, Skinner and Gardener (alternative spellings are Gardner and Gardiner). A fowler caught birds. A waterman rowed a boat or a barge. Wheeler was another name for a wheelwright. A Hooper made hoops for barrels.

Some are less obvious. A sawyer was a man who sawed logs. A turner was a man who turned wood on a lathe and made things like wooden bowls. A roper made ropes. A Shoesmith made horseshoes. A Mercer was a dealer in fine cloth. The name Farmer may seem obvious but, in the Middle Ages, a fermier was a tax collector. A farmer took on its modern meaning much later. However, a Granger was a man who looked after a grange or farm. A Frobisher polished swords or armour.

A Chapman and a hawker sold goods at markets. (The surname Hawk may be short for hawker or it may have begun as a nickname for a person who was as fierce as a hawk). People who sold goods of a certain kind were also called mongers. An Inman was an innkeeper. Baxter meant a woman brewer. Brewster meant a woman brewer.

In the Middle Ages, poor people ate coarse, dark bread. Rich people ate fine, white bread. The surname Whitbread came from people who baked white bread. Hurd or Hird is from a man who looked after herds. A horner was a man who made things like ink pots and spoons from cow horns. We also, of course, have the surname Spooner, a man who made spoons. A Crocker was a man who made crocks. Faulkner is derived from a falconer and a man who made equipment for horses was a Lorrimer. Malthus is derived from malthouse.

In the Middle Ages wool was cleaned and thickened by pounding it in a mixture of clay and water. This was called fulling and it has given us the name fuller. (At first, people called walkers used their feet to pound the wool so we have the surname Walker. Later the wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by watermills). Lister was another word for a dyer. A barker was a man who dealt in bark for tanning leather. Flexman is a corruption of flax man, a man who grew flax for making linen.

A Bowyer made bows and a Stringer or Stringfellow made the strings for bows. A fletcher made the shafts for arrows and attached the flights. An arrow smith made arrowheads. (There were many different types of arrowheads and making them was a craft in itself). There were also of course archers and bowmen. A wright was a man who wrought or made things. A Wainwright was a man who made carts. Cartwright has the same origin. An Arkwright was a man who made chests, which were called arks.

Under the feudal system, most men were serfs or bondmen. That is where we get the surname Bond. However, some men were free so we have the surname Fry. A Franklin was a well-to-do farmer who owned his land. Foster is a corruption of Forester. A Knatchbull was a man who hit bulls on the head to stun them before they were slaughtered. A Bolter was a man who sifted meal although he could also be a man who made bolts, either the ones you use with nuts or bolts for crossbows. The surname Bolt may be short for bolter but it has also been suggested it was a nickname for a person who was short and fat and looked like a bolt.

In a castle, a chamberlain was an important official. The surname Chambers comes from the same source, a man who looked after the king’s or a noble’s private chambers. The name Spencer comes from a man who dispensed stores. Other officials were the Parker who looked after the game park and the Warriner who looked after rabbit warrens. From him, we get the surname Warner. The reeve was an important official in a Medieval village. Bailey is a corruption of bailiff, another important official.

Dempster is derived from deemster, an old English word for a judge. Two other court officials were the summoner, who brought the prisoner before the judge and the beadle. At a feast, people dipped their fingers in water between courses and they dried them with towels provided by a Napier. (Although some people think this surname may come from the Scottish ‘nae peer’). The Marshall was responsible for seating arrangements. A Kitchener washed up. The surname Parsons was given to a parsons servant.

Some people looked after certain things e.g. the Hayward and the Woodward. Coward is derived from cowherd. There was also a hog-ward who gave us the surname Hoggart. A stot was a young ox and the man who looked after him was called a stot herd, which has become the surname Stoddard. The surnames Yates and Yateman are corruptions of gates and gateman i.e. gatekeeper. A Burgess was a well-off man who had certain rights in the borough where he lived.

Surnames from Personal Names

Many people were given surnames like Robinson or Williamson. Other obvious ones are Benson, Stevenson, Dickson, Robertson, Richardson, Jackson, Wilson, and Johnson. Wat was short for Walter so we also have the surname Watson.

An ‘s’ at the end of a personal name also meant ‘son of’ so we have surnames like Andrews, Stevens, Rogers, Hughes, Jacobs, and Williams. The first names Robin or Robert were sometimes shortened to Dob so we have Dobbs, Dobson, Hobbs, and Hobson. People named Hugh were sometimes called Hudd so we have the surnames, Hudd and Hudson. Gilbert’s were sometimes called Gibb so we have the surnames Gibb, Gibbs, Gibbon, and Gibbons. Hutchinson and Hutchins both come from Hutchins, which was a pet name for a person named Hugh.

The surnames Davies and Davis are both derived from Davy’s son. (Davy was short for David). Some people had pet names ending in ‘kins’ or ‘kin’ So we have Atkins from Ad-kins (Adam-kins) and Wilkins. We also have Dawkins. (Daw was a pet name for David so we also have the surname, Dawson). Huggins is from Hugh-kins. Jenkins is from Jan-kins. However, some people were just given their father’s name as a surname like Arnold, Henry, Howard, or Thomas.

Fitz is a corruption of the Norman-French ‘fils de’ (son of). The ending ‘cock’ meant a young man. So we have Hitchcock (Hitch was a pet name for Richard). We also have Wilcock. Men called Nicholas were sometimes called Nicol. Surnames like Nichols and Nicholson are derived from there. Bartlett meant little Bart and Willett meant little Will. Hewett meant little Hugh. Elliott was a diminutive of Elias. Ellis was also a form of Elias. Almond has nothing to do with nuts! It comes from the Old English name Ealhmund.

Surnames from Place Names

Sometimes people were given a surname because they lived near a certain geographical feature such as Heath, wood, or woods. Other surnames are Hurst (an old word for a wooded hill), Green or Greene (for somebody who lived by the village green), Hill, Banks, Brooke, Beck, and Bywaters. Shaw is a northern word for woods. A Bradshaw was a broad shaw. Holt meant a small wood. Hollis means a dweller by the holly trees. We also have the surname Warboys from ward bois (bois is the French word for wood). Valleys were sometimes called bottoms. The surname Botham comes from there. So does Longbottom and Ramsbottom.

Wade was another name for a ford. Thorpe is a Danish word meaning a hamlet dependent on a larger settlement nearby. Somebody who lived by the walls of a town might be given the surname Walls. If they lived on the edge of the town or village they might be given the surname Townsend. Or if they lived by towers they might get the surname Towers. The origin of the surnames Orchard and Pond are obvious. The surnames Wick, Wicke, Wickes, and Wicks all come from the old word wick, which meant a specialized farm. So does Whicker (dweller at the wick).

The old English word atten (meaning at the) has given us the surname Attenborough. Noakes is derived from the words atten-oaks. Attlee is from at-lee (a lee was a clearing in a forest). Bentley was a clearing with bent grass. The surname Nash is derived from atten-alders. We also have the surname Atwell.

Some people take their surname from a particular town or village. The name Middleton comes from the village name middle tun, which meant middle farm or settlement. Milton is a corruption of Middleton. Other common surnames are Weston from west tun and Ashton (the tun by the ash trees). The Saxon word worth meant enclosure so we have surnames like Ashworth (the enclosure by the ash trees).

Another surname taken from the name of a village is Compton. It is a corruption of the Saxon words ‘cumb tun’, which meant farm or hamlet in a valley (cumb). The surname Darby is a corruption of Derby the city in England. Ripley comes from a place in Derbyshire. Other examples of surnames derived from place names are Bakewell, Bampton, Eccleston, and Southcott (cott is an old word for cottage). Denton and Southwell are also derived from village names. Denton is a corruption of denu tun, farm or hamlet in a valley, and wella meant spring.

The surname Stone may have been given because somebody lived by a prominent stone. However Stone is also a place name and the surname may have been given to somebody who came from there. If a stranger arrived he might be called new man and it might become the surname Newman. Scott has an obvious origin. Some surnames come from place names in Normandy e.g. Bone, Boon, and Boone are believed to be derived from Bohun. Quincy or Quincey is also from a place in France. So is Villiers.

Surnames from Nicknames

Many English surnames are derived from nicknames. Arrogant People might be called king, prince, bishop, or abbot. (Although surnames like Bishop and Abbot may have come about because somebody worked for a bishop or an abbot. They may also have been children of clergymen).

Some people might get a surname from their physical appearance such as little, small, and Cruikshank (crooked legs). Other such surnames are Strong and Armstrong. A pollard was a bald man. A Longman was a tall man. Crippen meant curly-haired. Other people were given surnames because of the way they walked like Swift, Golightly, and Steptoe. Some people were nicknamed fox or todd (an old English word for a fox). (Although it has been suggested that this surname was given to somebody who hunted foxes rather than somebody who was cunning). A loved person might be given the surname Dear or Deare.

Some people were given flattering surnames like Makepeace, Wise, Smart, Trueman or Young. Others were given surnames like Wilde (because they were wild!).

However, Bragg is derived from a word meaning bold or daring. It was not a nickname for a person who bragged! Moody might also seem straightforward but it comes from the old word modig, which meant bold. Some people were given the nickname Sharp or Sharpe because of their temperament. Tait meant cheerful. Unwin meant an unfriendly man while Darwin meant dear friend.

People with dark hair might get the surname Black or Blake (a corruption of black). Reid, Reed, and Read are all from red (redhead). Russell also meant red-haired. Blunt is a corruption of blount, which meant blonde. People with white hair might be given the surname Snow. People with golden hair might get the surname golden.

A very big person might be called Bull. The surname Peacock may have been a nickname for a vain person! Some people were nicknamed magpie or pie for short. They might also be called Pyatt, which meant little pie (magpie). That is where the surname Pyatt comes from.

Last revised 2023

Categorised as Articles