What our surnames tell us about ourselves

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Niccolo and Donkey
What our surnames tell us about ourselves

Guardian UK

David McKie

August 12, 2013


The point about surnames is their inevitability. Your forename is one that was chosen: your parents picked it and blessed you (or saddled you) with it; but the surname involves no choice: they are the ones we were born with.

We no longer possess some of the more extraordinary names of people you might have met in the streets of medieval England: Chaceporc, Crakpot, Drunkard, Gyldenbollockes ( centuries before David Beckham ), Halfenaked, Scrapetrough, Swetinbedde – though the London phone book still serves up many that can amuse and surprise. Here, within 10 columns, you can find an array that, even when you discount those that do not sound homegrown, such as Slabberkoorn, Slagmuylders, Slobodzian, Sluzsky and Slysz, still leaves us with a fine crop of surnames, some enticing, some soothing, but others, names that their owners might not have chosen had they been given the choice.

Here, for instance, are Slaby, Slankard, Slapp (and Slapper), Slark, Slatcher, Slay, Slaymaker, Sledge, Slee, Slingo and Slogan, not to mention Sloggem and Sloggett, Slomp, Slood, Slorance, Sluce, Sluggett, Slutter and Sly.

But throughout the 20th century a taste for these interests developed until the pursuit of surnames, and of family histories generally, became a craze, an addiction, even in a sense a religion, with its own high priests – the species of academic now known as onomasticians (onomastics is the study of names) – and its own private language: charactonyms, isonomy, brick walls, daughtering out, lexeme retrieval, uxorilocality. There is even a name for this addiction: progonoplexia.

There are two main threads in the excavation of surnames: their geography and their history. People want to know: where did we Bostocks begin? And, why did we begin as Bostocks, rather than, say, Blenkinsops or Blanchards? Among the many devices available to help answer such questions today there is a service, free on the internet, called Public Profiler , based at University College London, which will tell a Bostock in a couple of minutes where Bostocks were most profuse at the time of the 1881 census and where they were most common at the close of the 20th century. For the UK, the bluer the tint of an area on their maps, the more numerous your targets will be. In 1881, Bostocks materialise throughout the West Midlands, most of all around Crewe, but are also sturdily represented in Wales. By 1998, they are as strong in Nottingham as in Crewe, and are settled in significant numbers in new areas across north and mid-Wales, in East Anglia and in central London, areas where, a century earlier, you might easily have gone through life without meeting a Bostock.

That's the geography. But we also have much more reliable information on how many of our surnames came to be formed. The core of British surnames can be loosely grouped into four classes: patronymics, names derived from a father, such as Johnson and Jones, both of which indicate a forebear called John; then names that derive from places – either established settlements (Bolton, Bradford, Stepney) or local features (Bridge, Wood, Hill). If a man's name was Bradford, it is safe to assume that he came from somewhere other than Bradford. You would not have been called John of Bradford if you lived in Bradford, since all Johns there would have had a claim to that name as well.

Next come occupational names, to which class is usually added names that derive from an office. Smith, Wright, Butcher, Baker (though not Candlestickmaker – the third occupant of the tub in the nursery rhyme has failed to generate a surname), Brewer and Thatcher are obvious occupational names, derived from still-common employments. Others – Dempster (originally a judge: the term is still in use in the Isle of Man), Napier (in charge of the household linen), Mercer (a dealer in textiles), along with more recondite usages such as Pulver (one who earned his living by pulverising – grinding things into dust), Currier (perhaps a leather worker, perhaps one who groomed horses) and Tozer (a man employed to comb, card, or tease out wool) – come from jobs that have largely ceased to exist. Sheriff, Marshall, and Stuart (from Steward) are characteristic names that derive from office.

Surnames deriving from nicknames are often the most entertaining, but also often make least sense today. These names, more than the rest, were what people called you, not how you described yourself. They announced that you were Short, Stout or Long; that you had a Brown or a Black appearance; that you usually went about in a Green coat. Like so many nicknames, some were applied maliciously. Some, no doubt, were ironic, such as the nicknames often applied in sport, where a batsman famous for his slow rate of scoring can become known as Slasher Mackay (though another, equally famous for slowness, was nicknamed Barnacle Bailey ). But many must have been quite wildly inappropriate within a few years of being bestowed. A man called Thynne might, in middle age, have better deserved the name Stout. A man called Young would once have been young, or at any rate younger than one who bore the same name in a household; but that would not be so for ever.

The whole territory is landmined with ambiguities. Names derived from a forebear are usually least contentious. Few would dispute that the name Johnson began with a man whose father's name had been John, although other names, once assumed to be straight patronymics, are not now considered so simple. Tyson, for instance, is now more often thought to have come from the French word tison meaning a firebrand – a highly excitable, easily angered, character.

Nicknames, too, often look indisputable, but even then, where Brown began as a nickname, there is no way of knowing whether it denoted the colour of its owner's complexion or that of the coat he wore.

But names that derive from place names are worse. Suppose your name is Newton. People originally called your forebears that because, perhaps alone in their new community, they came from a place called Newton. But which Newton? There are 148 places called Newton in the Ordnance Survey Gazetteer – and that excludes ones such as Newton Abbot that come equipped with a suffix; and it is safe to assume there would once have been even more. There are 37 Nortons and 30 Suttons – again excluding those with a prefix or suffix: the equivalent surnames may derive from almost any one of them. As with many of the questions that the study of surnames raises, there is little chance here of a definitive answer.

Names derived from places may seem easy to pinpoint – but there are 30 Suttons in the Ordnance Survey Gazetteer. Photograph: Alamy

Occupational names are full of hazards, too. Farmer? That sounds easy enough. A man who owns or runs a farm. But farmer used also to mean tax collector. Rymer? A peripatetic poet, possibly; but also a man who made rims for wheels. Reader is not just someone who reads (when many couldn't); it may well mean thatcher. Walker wasn't a name for someone who walked. Everyone walked. A Walker carried out the same work – treading or crushing cloth – as a Fuller elsewhere. Everywhere there are names where some earlier surname dictionaries offer a single answer but later ones accept that they are mired in ambiguity.

We need also to look at migrations. The great majority of people in Britain, until well through the 19th century, settled and stayed close to the places where they were born; more surprisingly, the patterns established then still prevail today. But sometimes there have been significant internal movements across the country, usually provoked by economic distress. It used to be said that a name beginning with Tre-, Pol- or Pen- denoted a Cornishman. Cornwall still has its contingents of Tres, Pols and Pens, but they occur in other places too. They crop up in significant numbers in Cleveland and Middlesbrough, reflecting a substantial internal migration that came out of the collapse of the Cornish mining industry in the 1860s and 70s. In the 1930s, many Welshmen settled in prospering English towns such as Swindon and Slough. Their surnames travelled with them and took root in fresh localities.

Such changes, however, brought few new names to the national mix – a less abundant mix, despite today's grossly multiplied population, than we had before the Black Death and lesser plagues destroyed so many thousands of lives and swept off so many established surnames with them. What has from time to time replenished the stock has been – and continues to be – fresh arrivals from all over the seven seas, bringing with them names previously unknown in this country.

But then most of our names relate to invasions. Even the Celts, whom we tend to think of as Britain's oldest inhabitants, began elsewhere. The surnames that came from original Celtic forenames testify to that. A name that begins with the prefix "O" will most often come from Ireland, which has its Macs and Mcs too, but on a more modest scale. Macs and Mcs are far more common in Scotland, where "ó" and "Ó" are few. Names modulate, and ó Murchadha (sea-battler) turns into Murphy, ó Ceallaigh (bright-headed) into Kelly, ó Suilleabhain (dark-eyed) into Sullivan and ó Maioilriain into Ryan. There are Anglicisations too, as, for instance, Mac Gabhann gives way to Smith. Kellys are famously frequent on the Isle of Man.

The Scandinavians came here, again from differing homelands and favouring different destinations. They headed for Orkney and Shetland, the Western Isles, Skye, west Lancashire, Wirral and parts of Cheshire, Anglesey (now Ynys Mon) – some from Norway, some from Norway by way of Ireland and potent numbers from Denmark, thrusting so deep into Anglo-Saxon heartlands that Alfred, knowing he could not expel them, created the territory, across what is now the east Midlands and East Anglia and northwards into Northumbria, that became the Danelaw.

Each contingent of new arrivals left its mark on the pattern of English place names, and so in time on the pattern of surnames. Names ending in -by, -thorpe and -toft, or in -thwaite, -holme and -dale and -wick, help distinguish the names of the Midlands and north as sharply as do surnames that end in -son.

Fleming (sometimes spelled Flemming or Fleeming) means somebody out of Flanders. It has been estimated that about a third of William I's conquering army were Flemings, and in the subsequent 600 years there were three substantial waves of immigration from that region.

We owe the very existence of surnames in Britain to the invading Normans; they left us with a legacy of directly inherited names, though not all have the connection with 1066 that those who possess them like to imagine. Formerly much-consulted lists of men who came with the William the Conqueror, especially the Battle Abbey roll, have since proved to be totally unreliable. Indeed, the eminent surname expert David Hey says only people called Malet, Mallet or Mallett have an undisputed right to make such a claim.

But aside from that, there are numerous names with a clear Norman origin, not least because so many are traceable back to Norman place names: D'Arcy and Mandeville, Beaumont and Balliol, Harcourt and Fortescue, De Vere, Neville, Sinclair, Vavasour, Talbot and Warren.

These islands have seen many subsequent waves of migration, and each has left its seeding of surnames behind – in London most of all. Already at the start of this century surnames such as Patel, Ali and Khan were steadily climbing the charts. They continue to do so. But a further crop of previously unfamiliar names is now joining them. Poland has come to match India and Pakistan as one of the most numerous sources of new arrivals in Britain, reflecting the influx that followed Poland's accession to the European Union in 2004. The average Briton finds Polish names are more tongue-twisting than the now familiar Patel, Ali or Khan. To discuss the outstanding performance of the Polish football team that drew with Russia in the opening stages of the 2012 European Championship required the pronunciation of names hardly attempted across much of the country before, such as Piszczek, Wasilewski, and the captain, goal scorer and commentator's nightmare, Jakub Błaszczykowski. Mercifully, Wojtkowiak, Matuszczyk and Wawrzyniak were only substitutes.

Extracted from What's in a Surname?: A Journey from Abercrombie to Zwicker by David McKie, published by Random House at £14.99 on 29 August 2013.
Niccolo and Donkey
Niccolo and Donkey

Mine has a Gaelic word at its root, and is common as mud. Scottish people still like to hyper romanticize the clans, but fact of the matter is that people used to enter and leave the old clans, even take on the name, depending on circumstances. I've only gone back to the mid 19th century. For all I know my family were MacDonalds or MacGregors waaay back in the day, though I have a hunch not, since the relatives have related a very distinct narrative.


My surname is one of the most common in Germany. I am mass-produced mediocrity :(

Mine is Flake: http://www.houseofnames.com/flake-family-crest

Spelling variations of this family name include: Vlak, Vlake, Vlaken, Vlack, Vlacker, Vlakveld, Vlach, Flach, Flack, Flake, Flachen and many more. First found in Holland, where the name became noted for its many branches in the region, each house acquiring a status and influence which was envied by the princes of the region. The name was first recorded in South Holland, a province of Holland, the most crowded province of the Netherlands . The principal cities are Rotterdam, Leyden and Shiedam. Noted is the famed castle of Teilengen where Jacqueline of Bavaria is buried. In their later history the surname became a power unto themselves and were elevated to the ranks of nobility as they grew into this most influential family.

From howmanyofme.com

  • There are 972 people in the U.S. with the last name X.
  • Statistically the 27386th most popular last name.
  • There is 1 person in the U.S. named John Doe.
1 in 314,000,000, almost hard to believe.

And my mothers maiden name is rarer, 117 estimated in the US

The author misses a huge gap between surnames of aristocrats and surnames of common folk.

In Europe, surnames derived from places were a sign of aristocracy, John of Bradford would have been related to the noble family that ruled Bradford/a fief in that area.

Nickname, name and occupation-related surnames are a sign of common folk.


My surname is uncommon, untranslateable, indecipherable, and tells me nothing about myself.

Cool website, Stubbs