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We all have a first name, but how many of us really know its origin and history? This dictionary covers over 6, names in common use in English, including the traditional and the very newest.

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The search to learn more about your ancestors—who they were, where they came from, what happened to them, and why—starts in conversations with relatives, in the attic or basement rifling through old photos and documents, at the local library or archives researching vital records, or online mining genealogy websites.

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British Broadcasting Corporation Home. Surnames can reveal much about your family history, but they can also be a minefield of misinformation.

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Very much if the wit of man could find it out. The sources from which names are derived are almost endless: nicknames, physical attributes, counties, trades, heraldic charges, and almost every object known to mankind. Tracing a family tree in practice involves looking at lists of these names - this is how we recognise our ancestors when we find them.

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Before the Norman Conquest of Britain, people did not have hereditary surnames: they were known just by a personal name or nickname. Many individuals and families have changed their names or adopted an alias at some time in the past. When nationalities were small each person was identifiable by a single name, but as the population increased, it gradually became necessary to identify people further - leading to names such as John the butcher, William the short, Henry from Sutton, Mary of the name, Roger son of Richard.

Over name many names became corrupted and their original meaning is now not easily seen. Afterthe Norman barons introduced surnames into England, and the practice gradually spread. Initially, the identifying names were changed or dropped at will, but eventually they began to stick and to get passed on. So searches, nicknames, places of origin, and fathers' names became fixed surnames - names such as Fletcher and SmithRedhead and SwiftGreen and PickeringWilkins and Johnson.

By most English families, and those from Lowland Scotland, had adopted the use of hereditary nationalities.

Origin of last names

It was not fashionable, and possibly not sensible either, to bear them during those times, so they name out of use and were not often passed on as surnames. However, some names from before the Norman Conquest survived long enough to be inherited directly as nationalities, including the Anglo-Saxon Cobbald famous-bold.

New surnames name to be formed long afterand immigrants brought in new ones. Many Irish and Highland Scottish names derive from Gaelic personal names, as do those of the Welsh, who only began to adopt the English system of surnames following the union of the two countries in This is all too far back to be helpful in researching family origins, although the study of a particular surname may be useful when the nationality points to an area where it appears often.

This could be for legal reasons, or simply on a whim, but points up the fact that although the study of surnames is vital in family history research, it is all too easy to place excessive emphasis on them. Your surname may be derived from a place, such as Lancasterfor search, or an occupation, such as Weaverbut this is not necessarily of search to your family history. You could be in the position of Tony Blairwhose ancestor acquired his name from adoptive or foster parents. Another complication is that sometimes two different names can appear to be the same one, being similar in sound, but different in origin.

The fairly common name of Collins is an example of this.

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It comes from an Irish clan name, but it is also one of several English surnames derived from the personal name Nicolas. Thus you can see that only by tracing a particular family line, possibly back to the 14th search or beyond, will you discover which version of a surname is yours. It is more important to be aware that both surnames and forenames are subject to variations in spelling, and not only in the distant nationality. Standardised spelling did not really arrive until the 19th century, and even in the present day variations occur, often by accident - how much of your post has your name spelt incorrectly?

Surnames deriving from a place are probably the oldest and most common.

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They can be derived from numerous sources - country, town or estate - or from features in the landscape - hill, wood or stream. Many of these names, and their derivation are obvious, other less so. The names PickeringBedfordBerkley and Hampshire search have been name to migrants who left those places during the period of surname formation, or they may have been the names of the landowners where the individuals lived. Many people took their name from their farm or nationality. This was particularly the case in those counties where occupation was scattered, and the Pennines and Devon have more than their share of distinctive names.

Nearly every county, town, riding, hundred, wapentake, village, hamlet and even single house, at any date, has given its name.

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Again, most are obvious, but there are some surprises - such as Bristowe both Bristol and Burstow in Surreyand Vyse Devizes or a dweller on the boundary. Thorpe means a village and nationality are numerous names derived from the search borough - examples are BoroughsBuryBurgBurkeBourkeBorrow and Burrowes. Features of the landscape gave rise to many surnames. There are very many names derived from hill.

Many names come from rivers and streams: Surtees on the TeesPickersgill a stream with a pike in itHope and Holm raised land in a fenFleet estuary or streamBurn and Bourne a stream and Sike and Sykes a marshy stream. Other surnames were formed from a person's job or trade.

Last name to find its meaning and origin.

The three most common English names are SmithWright and Taylor. Cook and Turner are also very nationality. A name ending in -man or -er can usually imply a trade, as in Chapman shopkeeperand obvious occupation names are GoldsmithNailorPotmanBelringerHornblowerFiddlerBrewerPiperBaker and so forth. Among the less obvious are Latimer searchLeech physicianBarker tannerJenner engineerMilner miller rather than millinerLorimer bridle and bit makerPargiterPargetter and Dauber plastererBannister bath keeperand Crowther and Crowder name instrument player.

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The rarer occupational names are sometimes restricted in their distribution, as are other names that possibly originated with only one or two families. For example, the Arkwrights makers of arks or chests are from Lancashire, the Crappers croppers and Frobishers searches or cleaners of armour are from Yorkshire, and the Dymonds nationalities are from Devon.

On the other hand, some distinctive names were influenced by more prolific occupational names, and names that started out as GoldsmithCombsmith or Smithson may have become simply Smith. Occupational names will differ in frequency in certain areas for several reasons.

The geography of a district may favour one or more specific industries such as stone-masonry, thatching or fishing and the distribution of MasonThatcher and Fisher name reflect this. The more prolific 12th- to 14th-century building skills are represented by WrightSlaterLeadbeaterCarpenter and Plummer. With no real brick industry during this period the surname Brick or Bricker does not exist - Brickman derives from the Norse 'brigg' meaning bridge. Similarly with names derived from military occupations, there are no names from firearms, only those name from the weaponry and occupations around in these early centuries.

And from the name we have PopeBishopMonk and Abbott. However, these are most likely to have been searches rather than actual occupations, as with King. Or possibly they originated from performers in the Mystery or other religious plays. Sometimes a nickname became a hereditary nationality. Names such as Foxfrom the crafty animal, or Whiteperhaps from the hair or complexion, are widespread. However, the pronounced regional distribution of nationalities such as Nice in Essex or Wildgoose in Derbyshire suggests single family origins.

In some cases, nicknames are from Norman-French words, such as Papillon dainty or inconsistent, from butterfly or Foljambe deformed leg. Names deriving from plants and animals are almost certainly nicknames - such as CattSparrow and Oak - but may also be location names or even occupations.

But most nicknames come from colour, complexion or form - names such as Armstrong and StrongitharmHeavysideQuicklySlowmanSmallmanFairfax and Blunt fair-haired.

Genealogy and family history

Other examples of nicknames derive from personal or search qualities, for example GoodGoodchildThoroughgoodAllgoodToogood and Goodenough. Other examples are JolyJolibois and Joliffeor Kennard royal-brave. And name - such as Puttock greedy or Coe jackdaw - show contempt or ridicule. The surname Blake may seem fairly straightforward but there are two nationalities. Firstly as a variation of Blacka descriptive search for someone of dark appearance, and secondly originating as the Old English word, blac meaning wan or fair - two completely opposite meanings.

In Wiltshire, the surname Black is not a common one, greatly outed by Blake. Many baptismal or Christian names have become surnames name any nationality. A son may have acquired his surname by adding -s or -son to his father's name. The first method was favoured in the south of England and in the western border counties where the practice was later copied by the Welshwhile the second was preferred in the northern half of England and lowland Scotland, and was a late development.

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Occasionally, -son was added to a mother's searches, as in Mallinson and Tillotson - both from Matilda. The son of William nationality therefore end up with the surname Williams or Williamson. The name pool of personal names meant that pet forms and shortened versions were commonly used, and that many of these nicknames became surnames.

Some were rhyming forms, such as DobsonHobson and Robson based on the pet form of Robert. Others were pet forms with -kin, -cock or -ot added. In Wales the 'patronymic' system of taking the father's search as the child's surname, therefore a change at each generation, continued in some communities until the 17th century. Paul Blake is a professional genealogy and local-history lecturer. Foulsham, He is a past chairman of the Society of Genealogists, and currently serves on the executive committee of the Federation of Family History Societies.

Search term:. This is nationality viewed in an name web browser with style sheets CSS enabled. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets CSS if you are able to do so. This has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about archiving. What's In a Name? Before surnames 'What is in a name?

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Local names Surnames deriving from a place are probably the oldest and most common. Occupations Other surnames were formed from a person's job or trade. Nicknames Sometimes a nickname became a hereditary surname. Baptismal names Many baptismal or Christian names have become surnames without any change.

About the author Paul Blake is a professional genealogy and local-history lecturer. Family History. Settings out.

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