I’ve been reading my local telephone directory. He’s going crazy, you might assume at this point, but the kind of list contained within the pages of a typical telephone directory is more fascinating than you might think. That is because we take surnames for granted nowadays. It wasn’t always so. People didn’t always have surnames.
The following remarks refer only to the British Isles. I know almost nothing about the way in which familial names have developed elsewhere in the world, except to say that Chinese names have existed in more or less their present form since at least the time of Confucius (551–479 BC). Surnames did not begin to appear in the British Isles until the thirteenth century, and when they did it was a gradual process, taking up to 200 years in some areas.
All the surnames that can be traced back to this period fall into one of four categories—patronymic, descriptive, occupational, locational—although some of the surnames that emerged later and are now regarded as British may have had more exotic origins.
Each of the nations that make up the British Isles has its own variant on the patronymic theme. In England, the usual form used the suffix –son following the name of the father (Johnson, Richardson, Williamson, etc.). The other nations used prefixes: Mac– or Mc– (Macgregor, McDougal, etc.) in Scotland; O’– in Ireland (O’Neill, O’Brien, etc.); and Ap in Wales (Ap Richard (= Pritchard), Ap Barry (= Parry), etc.). There is also the Norman Irish Fitz– (Fitzgerald, Fitzpatrick, etc.), which has the same meaning.
Although patronymic surnames are extremely common, the name of the father is not always obvious. Examples include Addison (‘son of Adam’), Anderson (‘son of Andrew’) and Dawson, which has the same meaning as Davidson and McTavish. Then there are surnames derived from what were originally pet names, including Atkinson (‘son of dear little Adam’), Dickinson (of Richard), Jenkinson (of Jack), Hodgkinson (of Roger), Hutchinson (of Hugh) and Wilkinson (of William).
Some surnames that are apparently patronymic may have other origins. Apprentices and journeymen might have acquired the name of their masters during the period when surnames were becoming fixed, so Richards is as likely to have meant ‘Richard’s man’ as ‘Richard’s son’. Other common examples of this type include Peters and Williams.
Descriptive surnames are ones that reflect the physical characteristics of the original bearer. Thus someone who was notably taller than his friends might have acquired the surname Long, Lang or Laing, while someone of below average height might have been named Short or Little. Strong and Armstrong are self-explanatory, as are Broad and Large, but the meanings of some descriptive surnames are not immediately obvious.
For example, White and Black referred originally to hair colour, as did Whitehead and Blackett (–ett is a common corruption of ‘head’), while Sharp meant ‘discerning, alert’ rather than ‘quick-witted’. Moody could mean ‘courageous’ or ‘stubborn’ and did not acquire its present meaning until the time of Shakespeare. In the Middle Ages, Stout meant ‘valiant’ or ‘resolute’ and did not become a reference to corpulence until the nineteenth century.
Lightfoot would have referred originally to someone who was fleet of foot, while its uncomplimentary opposite was Puddifoot, or ‘stumpy foot’. It must seem incredible that such an insulting name would have stuck to a man’s children, yet three of the most famous Scottish surnames are anything but complimentary: Cameron, ‘crooked nose’; Campbell, ‘crooked mouth’; and Kennedy, ‘ugly head’.
Some descriptive surnames are recognizable as such only after a moment’s thought, but names such as Crow(e), Finch, Fox, Hart, Hawk(e), Peacock and Wolf(e) referred originally to characteristics of behaviour that reminded people of the animal or bird in question. The final sub-category under the ‘descriptive’ label consists of names constructed from an uninflected verb followed by a noun (concrete or abstract), such as Dolittle, Lovejoy and Turnbull, which are also likely to have been based on behaviour.
There are so many occupational surnames that I started this section by seeing how many I could think of in the space of five minutes. This is what I came up with: Archer, Baker, Bowman, Butcher, Carpenter, Carter, Cook(e), Cooper, Draper, Dyer, Fisher, Fletcher, Fowler, Fuller, Hunter, Mason, Miller, Porter, Potter, Shepherd, Skinner and Turner. This list doesn’t include names where the spelling has been altered over the centuries, such as Clark(e), Faulkner (‘falconer’), Fo(r)ster (‘forester’), Gard(i)ner and Taylor.
Spelling is a constant problem when trying to trace the origin of surnames. Any changes may have been initiated by the bearer of the name, perhaps to address some perceived embarrassment, or, more likely at a time when levels of literacy were low, be the result of careless transcription by those responsible for the keeping of parish records. In fact, punctiliousness in spelling is a relatively recent phenomenon that can probably be traced to the emergence of dictionaries.
Surnames based on geographical locations reflect a common naming convention in the Middle Ages. Relatively few people ventured further afield than the distance they could walk in a day during their entire lifetimes, but it was more common for people to move to nearby villages and towns, where during the rest of their lives they would have been known by the town or village they had come from. However, identifying the names of places in people’s surnames is difficult, partly because of the way spellings have shifted over the centuries and partly because some surnames that are obviously place names may be spurious later inventions.
I will close this brief survey of British/Irish surnames with an attempt to explain why these surnames came into widespread use in the first place. Imagine a short, stocky red-headed man at the beginning of the fourteenth century whose name is Peter and who lives in the village of Tottington, north of Bury in what is now Greater Manchester. He was born in the nearby small town of Ramsbottom and makes his living making wains (‘wagons’). He likes his baptismal name, but there is a problem: the pool of potential font names was limited at that time—New Testament names such as Andrew, James, John, Peter and Simon were the most popular—and there are half a dozen other men called Peter in the village.
Peter, whose father is called John, is effectively Peter Johnson Redhead Short of Ramsbottom, Wainwright, and during his lifetime he might have been known by any one of these five occasional surnames. Peter’s modern descendants might carry the surname Peters, Peterson, Pearce, Pearson, Perrin, Perkins or Parkinson. However, given the fluidity of names during this period, Peter’s children might have been named after their grandfather, so their descendants might be known as Johns, Johnson, Jones, Jacks, Jackson, Jenkins, Jenkinson or Jennings (Johnstone is not a misspelling of Johnson but a reference to John’s tun or farm). This multiplicity of possible variants means that, once separated by time and distance, closely related people would no longer be aware of their kinship.
Peter’s lack of physical stature might be commemorated in a name such as Little, Short or Small, while if his shock of red hair was particularly striking, his distant descendants might now be known as Redhead or perhaps Fox, although this latter name could be an oblique reference to someone who was sly or cunning. However, if the attribute that he was best known for was his skill as a maker of wagons, then Cartwright or Wainwright might be the name borne by his descendants.
Do you have an unusual surname? Mine is common (‘son of Roger’)—the third most common in my home town after Wilson and Thompson—although I’m not related to any of the other Hodgsons in town, apart from my brother. There are hundreds of Dennis Hodgsons in the world, but only one of them is me.
Thankfully, you are probably thinking at this point.