Surnames Featured on this Site

The Emergence of Surnames

Before surnames began to be routinely passed on to a man’s offspring, if they occurred at all they were just “by-names”—additional names by which a man might be known. Hereditary surnames came into use in Britain gradually, over the centuries following the Norman Conquest, with the gentry class leading the way. By the end of the 14th century, most Englishmen had hereditary surnames, though some Brits, especially in Scotland and Wales, didn’t finally settle on a particular surname until the 18th century. Generally speaking, on this site, when I use the term “surname” without qualification, I mean it in the sense of the hereditary surnames we all take for granted. Surnames in this sense may also be thought of as “family names”.

Most of the early gentry surnames were “locative” surnames.—derived from the place name of a man’s land holdings. For example, Robert de Stafford, who appears in the Domesday Book (of 1086) as a tenant-in-chief with large holdings in Staffordshire, was the son of Roger de Toeni, so Robert himself did not inherit a surname—but his son did. As the peasantry began to adopt hereditary surnames, they had to find other kinds of derivations, and not just because their lands were at best unnamed small holdings; they might still have been surnamed for the place they came from, except that most never left the manor or place of their birth, being legally bound to that land. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until these feudal ties slackened, and extraordinary disruptive events such as wars and plagues produced social upheaval and drove formerly settled serfs onto the road, that the need for surnames became general, and in those periods, locative surnames were adopted by men of the commoner class as well.

Surnames were also derived by men of all classes from personal characteristics, from occupations or offices held, or from association of an individual and his family with a local topographical feature; thus the offspring of a man with the byname “John of the Hill”, might come to be surnamed Hill.

Patronymic Surnames

Perhaps the most common kind of surname derivation across all classes and cultures is the patronymic surname—a surname based on some form of the father’s personal name. Personal names (also called “given”, “Christian”, or “baptismal” names) could be used as surnames in their original form, or surnames might be derived from “pet” name or nickname variants, or diminutives of the formal personal name, and/or they might be marked explicitly as patronymics, at least in British cultural areas, by addition of the suffix “-son”, or the prefix “Mac-” to any of the other name forms. Although technically only names of the latter class (the suffixed and prefixed ones) are called patronymics, most of the surnames based on personal names were probably patronymics in effect, though we can only guess at the reasons why particular surnames of any kind were adopted, except in very rare cases.

Surnames & Genealogy

Hereditary surnames are practically coterminous with family history for the rather obvious reason that genealogy is a matter of records, and the emergence of hereditary surnames in the scanty old records typically marks the beginnings of family relationship evidence for particular patrilineages.

Although genealogists are above all interested in particular surname lineages, they are also faced at every turn with the problem of distinguishing the lineage they are interested in from others of the same surname. Thus, every serious genealogist needs to become, to some extent, a student of the surname as well as of the patrilineage.

Surnames Can Carry Valuable Clues to Their Places of Origins

This is obviously true in the case of locative surnames, since these are by definition derived from the names of particular places. And rare surnames of all types are likley to be found clustered all in some small corner of Britain. But there are also many other kinds of less obvious patternings in the distribution of surnames, both geographically, and in time, which can provide useful clues about where to direct one’s family history research.

Surname Variants Ending in “-s”

For example, there is the interesting case of British surnames with variants ending in “s”. R.A. McKinley tells us, in A History of British Surnames {118-121) that a vogue for patronymic surnames ending in “-son” developed during the peak period of surname adoption, 1270-1350, but that it was largely confined to the area of the north Midlands on up into the Scottish lowlands, while meanwhile a parallel class of surnames derived from personal names by the addition of “-s” emerged in the areas south of a line drawn approximately midway, west to east, through Staffordshire. Evidently, the “-s” surnames were also patronymics, and surnames ending in “-s” and going back before 1500 at the latest, were most likely to be found in the SW Midland counties of Gloucester, Oxford, and Hereford.

However, one also has to take into account that surnames derived from personal names by adding “-s” were most closely associated with Wales from 1500 onwards, so that the time of adoption is also a factor, and of course, this is usually not known—although yDNA testing can provide estimates. McKinley also remarks that there was a tendency after 1600 or so for “-s” to be added to all sorts of surnames, and not merely those derived from personal names to make patronymics, and I have observed this at work in the British American colonies as well, particularly (for some reason) in the states of the Old South. I think that it may be best to think of these surname variants in a different light: whereas patronymic “-s” surnames were grammatical possessives, these later “-s” surnames were probably plural forms, and it seems natural enough for names that were after all family names to evolve thus into collective nouns.

The Forms of Names & Surnames in Public Documents

What I have to say here applies principally to the period of phonetic spelling within the British realm, when the general level of literacy was low, and there was no real concept of correct spelling. During this period, most writing was done either by professional clerks, or by a few businessmen or men of affairs (and the male terminology employed here may well be taken in the gender-specific, not the universal, sense, because precious few women, unless they were titled nobility, ever had the occasion for writing).

Although this period is distinquished by idiosyncracy, and a lack of conventions in writing, thus defeating the kinds of inferences that we moderns are inclined to draw out of deviance from standard conventions, an analysis of the written forms of names and signatures can still yield useful inferences for genealogical purposes.

In the first place, we may say that spelling in America before 1820 or so was phonetic, and there was no real concept of “correct” spelling until Webster’s Dictionary became a best seller in the 1810s and 20s, and was adopted by the rising generation of spinster schoolmarms as the arbiter of gentility. Before this, all but the most literate and bookish wrote down words more or less the way they sounded, and there were no real conventions governing phonetic spelling either. Consequently, it was not uncommon for a literate man to write out his will, and spell his own name more than one way. Even clerks, who made their living as professional penmen, had their eccentricities of spelling and weren’t always consistent in the spelling of names.

In the second, contrary to what many people think, the fact that a person signed with a mark (most often an “X”, but it could be another letter or symbol) didn’t necessarily mean that he was illiterate. In fact, during the colonial period, most men, and many women, had the rudiments of an education, including minimal literacy—perhaps the equivalent of a 5th grade education today. However, in an era when adults weren’t constantly forced to fill out government forms and other paperwork, a man might go from one year to the next without ever having to write anything, and over the years, his copybook lessons would have been long forgotten. As a consequence, many men who could read (albeit with some effort), and by taking pains sign their names, often preferred, as a matter of convenience, to sign by mark—just as many today default to an illegible dashed-off scrawl for their signature.

By the same token, one rarely finds much holographic writing during this period. In fact such writing as was done by most men was typically confined to short, ungrammatical (twitter-like) notes such as marriage consents, or IOUs, and most of these ephemeral documents have disappeared. When they can be found, though, and particularly when they are signed in the same hand they are written in, the specific form of the signature, and the writing in general, can tell one something about the mind and education of its author. It can also, in certain circumstances, provide invaluable and conclusive proof of identity.

One of the more difficult tasks of the evidence-based genealogist is to establish that a person who used to live in a different, far-off place, is one and the same as the person of the same name who lives in a new place, and finding holographic documents in his hand in both the earlier and the later place accomplishes this quite convincingly. Unfortunately for the genealogist, though, virtually all the surviving public records of a county or a town tend to be in the hand of the county clerk, and genealogists typically overlook the few records that may preserve samples of a person’s original writings. These include loose paper files of chancery court records, war service pension files, and merchant accounts.

As for the clerical copies, even there one is likely to find more than one spelling of any but the simplest and most common surnames, if only because the original document (say a deed or a will) would have been written out by a professional clerk or lawyer, who applied his own more literate criteria of phonetic spelling, while the document would be signed by the less literate subject who had even less concept of “correct” or even consistent spelling. Since the clerk’s job was to be an accurate copyist, most of the time he would copy the signature as found, and if the signature was by mark, he would even make an attempt to render the mark, if it was of an identifiable pattern.

See my paper, “Surname Spelling in Early America” for more on the possible significance of surname spelling variants.

Surname Studies & Publications

Surname studies in Britain, and especially in England, seem to be more advanced than in other areas of the English-speaking world. This probably has everything to do with the fact that social and economic status in England has turned on the paternal inheritance of titles and landed property since hereditary surnames first came into use as identifiers and began to be reflected as such in the public records.

Unfortunately, for all the interest on the part of landed families, and later of genealogists, in tracking particular surname lineages, both the general history, and the particular histories of the rise and evolution of surnames are viewed today through a fog, dimly. There have been important antiquarian collectors of surname histories, and I suppose a few academics have studied the subject in certain contexts, but apparently the history of the origin and spread of surnames has attracted very little of the systematic scholarly attention which the subject deserves. There seem to be only a handful of books on the subject of surnames and names in general which rise to scholarly standards, and much of what history, lore, and guesswork there is, is packed into half a dozen surname dictionaries. My own reading and study has been practically confined to the subject of British surnames, however, so I would not want to generalize beyond that orbit.

First, let us consider the dictionaries. P.H. Reaney & R.M. Wilson Dictionary of English Surnames. revised 3rd edition (1997) besides suggesting surname etymologies, also usefully itemize first usages of names, in the manner of the OED, but unfortunately there is no telling, with most of the examples, whether the names are hereditary surnames, or merely bynames which expired with the life of their referent.

Besides Reaney, Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges have published their own Dictionary of Surnames (1988) under the Oxford imprint—a book I have, and use; one of its strengths is that it covers surnames from other than English-speaking cultures. One of co-authors of this work, Patrick Hanks, has since followed up with an extensively revised and supplemented American surname dictionary: Dictionary of American Family Names (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Hanks’s American dictionary (sometimes referred to as DAFN) is distinguished both by its comprehensiveness, and by its quantification of the frequencies of American surnames in the population. As a preliminary step, Hanks tabulated all the names found in a 1997 database of US telephone numbers. After a bit of filtering, and some consolidation of variant spellings, but a bare minimum of winnowing out of only the very rarest names, Hanks accounted for all the surname variants found across a base of 88.7 million persons, and for each provided a derivation (or a reference to another entry), and a frequency tabulation. Only surname variants which occured fewer than 100 times in the reference population of 88.7 million were passed over.

The frequency tabulations in DAFN can be usefully supplemented (as I have done for the surnames featured on this website), by searching the indexes of the online US and UKCensuses for the same names and variants, or the IGI, and these and other resources, like Elsdon C. Smith’s American Surnames, which is based on 1964 Social Security data, can give some idea of the geographic distributions as well as the frequency of these surnames, as these evolved over time.

As for the books on the history of surnames, one which I think has considerable merit is Richard A. McKinley, A History of British Surnames, published in 1990 by the Longman Group as part of a series called Approaches to Local History. McKinley points to Dr. H.B. Guppy’s, Homes of Family Names in Britain (1890), as an important pioneering work on the geographical distribution of English surnames, and to Professor Percy H. Reaney’s The Origin of English Surnames (1967) as a worthy scholarly attempt at a general history, but one which focuses more on the etymologies—the derivations of the words themselves—than on actual surname histories as worked out mainly by genealogists. We learn from the introduction to this book that McKinley was appointed to an endowed fellowship at the University of Leicester encompassing the study of surnames, and his 1990 book is presumably one of the fruits of that appointment.

Last, but certainly not least, contemporary authority and specialist in Yorkshire surnames, Dr. George Redmonds, who was McKinley’s pupil, has published several books relevant to name studies, including one on given names, Christian Names in Local and Family History (2004), which I am reading now. This book, incorporates the author’s frequency analysis of the comprehensive poll tax returns of 1377, 1379, and 1381, and so gives him a much better basis than earlier scholars for evaluating the evolution of English given names over the centuries. Christian Names not only sheds new light on the onomastic patterning of given names within families and clusters of allied families through the agency of godparental naming, but also pertains directly to the history of surnames, since so many of them are derived from personal names, and it should be considered indispensable for any genealogist whose research encompasses the English motherland.

Although Redmond’s approach is overtly statistical, and benefits from the additional precision, McKinley’s work, although it seems vague and impressionistic by comparison, is also evidently the distillation of a lifetime’s experience studying all kinds of British surnames in their geographical and historical settings. Redmond’s solider evidence enables him to correct and refute his predecessors in many specific instances, but McKinley’s often sweeping, but carefully qualified generalizations provide valuable guidance as one attempts to zero in on the history of particular surnames. Both men would agree, I think, that the overall history of British surnames is at best a vague composite which rests on specific histories of thousands of particular surnames. And both explicitly acknowledge that it is those genealogists with a focus broad enough to encompass all the variants of these particular surnames who have the best chance of working out these particular histories.

A notable nexus for many of these particular surname studies is the British-based Guild of One-Name Studies, which has, since its founding in 1979, done much to fill the gap between genealogy and the history of particular surnames. Members adopt a particular surname of which they have extensive knowledge, and pledge to act as collectors and facilitators for the continued worldwide study of that surname. GOONs also publishes a quarterly journal with interesting articles on surnames and the study of surnames. Any genealogists who are finding themselves gradually broadening their interest to all lines of a particular surname, are encouraged to seriously consider formally adopting that surname and joining the guild, or supporting the efforts of a member who has already done so. I myself have been a member of the Guild, and quite likely will be again.

Finally, project administrators of thriving yDNA surname projects are particularly well situated to contribute to the study of their project surnames, or if they don’t have the time for this personally, they are likely to know of others who might be similarly qualified.

For those unfamiliar with the relevance of yDNA testing to surname studies, please see my essay What Everyone Should Know about these subjects, and also pages 3-4 of my essay on Deconstructing TMRCA.

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Editorial Notes

Generic Surnames are Rendered in All-Caps

On this site when a surname appears with all its letters capitalized it is meant to stand, generically, for all possible spelling variants of that surname. Thus, I avoid the awkwardness and inadequacy of constructions such as “Dennison/Denniston” or “Dennis[t]on”—inadequate because these two variants only scratch the surface of the spelling possibilities. In referring to individuals by surname, or to individual instances of a surname in the records, I shall of course use either the standard spelling for that individual (as I know it, or suppose it to be), or the specific literal spelling as I find it in the record.

The particular generic spelling I have adopted for each surname is in most instances the most common modern spelling of the name, as determined by its prevalence in the most recently available US or UKCensuses.

Books on Names & Surnames

George F. Black,
  The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History
    (Edinburgh, Birlinn Ltd, 1999)
Patrick Hanks & Flavia Hodges, A Dictionary of Surnames
    (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Patrick Hanks, Dictionary of American Family Names, 3 vols
    (Oxford University Press, 2003)
R.A. McKinley, A History of British Surnames
    (Longman Group Ltd, 1990)
P.H. Reaney, The Origins of English Surnames,
    (Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd, 1967)
P.H. Reaney, A Dictionary of British Surnames, 2nd Edition
    (Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd, 1976)
P.H. Reaney & R.M. Wilson,
  A Dictionary of English Surnames, Revised 3nd Edition
    (Oxford University Press, 1997)
George Redmonds, Christian Names in Local and Family History
    (Toronto: The Dundurn Group, 2004)
Elsdon C. Smith, American Surnames (1969; reprint GPC, 1994)
The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary
    (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971)
    The original, complete dictionary “reduced micrographically”
The New Cassell’s German Dictionary (Funk & Wagnalls, 1958)


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