What Does Your Surname Mean?

14 April 2023

Your surname can provide a vast amount of detail into your family history and is a great jumping off point to get you started in your research. Not only do they reveal the identities of your ancestors but can also tell you invaluable details about their lives! This blog will dive into when surnames came about, where they originate from, and how you can discover what your surname means!

Surname Neon Sign

When did Surnames Come About?

Surnames weren’t widely used until after the Norman Conquest in 1066. As the country’s population grew, it became necessary to distinguish between people. So names began to include descriptions of the person, such as Thomas, son of John, Peter the Baker, Richard the Whitehead, etc. These descriptions would grow to form the surnames we recognise today!

To begin with, surnames were fluid and changed over time, or as a person changed their job. For example, John Blacksmith would become John Farrier as his trade developed. The introduction of parish registers in 1538 helped to establish the idea of hereditary surnames, however it was still common in some parts of the country to find a person registered under different surnames at different times in their life. A surname can also change over time as family members adopt new customs or move. For example, if a family immigrates to another country, they may change their name to better assimilate in their new home country.

Generally speaking, a surname is a descriptive label given to an individual to distinguish them. It’s usually a combination of words that describe the ancestor who first held the name, or it could be an adaptation from an existing word in a language or dialect.

Today there are as many as 45,000 different English surnames, coming from all different origins. Let’s explore the most common origins.

There are four main types of surnames:

Landscape or location:

Many family names came from the geographical location where your ancestor lived. This can be the terrain and landscape of where your ancestor lived or the place, city, town, village, county, etc.

One example is the surname, Dale. The word originates from the Old English word for valley which suggests that your ancestors would be from a region filled with hills and valleys. A quick search into the name revealed multiple Dale’s in North Riding, Yorkshire which, funnily enough, is filled with hills and valleys! While this doesn’t uncover any conclusions about your family history, it could point you in the right direction.

An example of a place surname could be Lincoln, which suggests that your ancestors were from the city of Lincoln is Lincolnshire. Your surname may not be as obvious as this but it’s always worth digging deeper into the origins of your last name to see if you can pinpoint a place.



Often, surnames were based on what your male ancestors did for work, which provides huge detail about their lives.

Some surnames may be clear, such as Butcher, Baker, Shepheard, but others may be less clear such as Miller and Clark. Miller is from Old English or Scottish origin and came from the act of milling food, most commonly grains. Clark is derived from ‘clericus’ meaning ‘scribe’ so this last name could indicate a scholar in your family tree!


Some surnames gives us descriptive insights into the earliest holders of our surnames, usually their physical appearance but also descriptive of their personality.

For example, Brown could point to hair or eye colour, Swift could indicate your ancestor was a fast runner, and Goodfellow could point to a nickname for a friendly companion. Lofthouse or Long could indicate a tall person but do bear in mind that such surnames were often adopted in an ironic way, where the name Long was affectionately given to a person of short stature.

Family relationships:

Surnames based on family relationships go back to a time before surnames were formalised and can be particularly great for tracing the male lines in your family. Examples of surnames of this origin are Johnson and Jones, which both mean the son of John, Jackson which means the son of Jack and Fitzgerald which means son of Gerald.

In Irish genealogy, the prefixes Mac and O means son and grandson in Gaelic, and the female equivalent Ni means daughter.

Common Surnames?

Below is a list of some of the most common English surnames and their meanings:

  • Smith = metal worker or blacksmith.
  • Taylor = tailor.
  • Williams = son of William.
  • Wilson = son of Will.
  • Davies = son of David.
  • Wright = craftsman or maker of machinery, mostly in wood.
  • Walker – fuller (someone who walked on damp cloth to shrink and thicken it).
  • White = someone with white hair or a pale complexion.

Rare Surnames?

Below is a list of British surnames on the brink of extinction, according to the 2011 UK census, and their meanings:

  • Sallow = one whose dwelling was near to a willow tree.
  • Fernsby = one whose dwelling was near ferns.
  • Villan = a commoner.
  • Miracle = derived from the Latin personal name ‘Mauritius’, which means dark.
  • Culpepper = herbalist or spicer.
  • Tumbler = acrobat or acrobatic dancer.
  • Slora = clan elder.
  • Edevane = the younger happy one or the younger prosperous one.
Occupational Surnames such as smith

Why do Surnames Decline?

There are numerous explanations for the decline and disappearance of surnames. Occupational surnames linked to common professions such as Smith had a natural head start when last names first started to be recorded in the 13th century, and unusual names linked to localised places or niche professions were always going to be fewer in number.

In addition, Napoleonic conflicts and WW1 saw entire generations of young men wiped out; boys who often had distinctive surnames relating to the villages or hamlets they came from.

Another explanation for the decline is developing trends in slang and language, which have given once innocent names, crude or humorous connotations leading to people amending them to avoid ridicule or negative associations.

However, in many cases the principle reason for a name dying out is just fate. In less enlightened times, a man with only daughters would have the surname die with him!

How Can You Find Out What Your Surname Means?

The following are a few websites you can use to search the meaning of your surname and delve into your family history.

Another way to progress your research is to join one or mor surname societies as they provide articles, events, publications, opportunities to contact people with the same interests, and access to expert support. Some example of these are:

Cartoon of people in a park

When building your family tree, it’s important you take any details you uncover with a grain of salt as names change and evolve all the time. You should gather all possible details to see a truer insight into your family history. However, surnames do provide invaluable insight into your heritage and are a great way to get started!

I hope you learnt something about surnames and have maybe even sparked an interest in learning more about your surname and family history! Happy searching!

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