Authored by Bob Cumberbatch. Bob is the Education Liaison Officer of The Guild of One-Name Studies and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Surnames began being used in the 11th century and they have meanings and origins which can be grouped into four broad categories, which are: People, Places, Occupations and Nicknames.
Surnames based on people often mean “son of” a person. Robertson is a name derived from someone called Robert. This surname is especially common in Scotland, where Robert was a popular personal name and the name of three kings of Scotland, including Robert the Bruce (1274–1329). Other examples include: Williamson meaning ‘son of William’, Ferguson meaning ‘son of Fergus’ and Johnson. Gaelic names from Scotland and Ireland include Mac or Mc as in MacAlister. Irish examples include: O’Brien, FitzPatrick or Brennan. ‘Ap’ in Welsh means ‘son of’ and ‘ap Richard’ evolved into Pritchard and ‘ap Ellis’ became Bellis; Williams, meaning ‘son of William,’ is very common in Wales.
Surnames based on places are named after a particular place or a description of a place. Millington which is a name derived from places called Millington in Cheshire and East Yorkshire, so named from Old English mylen ‘mill’ + tun ‘enclosure’, ‘settlement’. Wood which is mainly a name for someone who lived in or by a wood or a metonymic occupational name for a woodcutter or forester, from Middle English wode ‘wood’ and Old English wudu. Hill is an extremely common and widely distributed name for someone who lived on or by a hill; from the Old English hyll.
Occupational surnames originated from someone’s work, their title or a position of status. Smith is an occupational name for a worker in metal; from Middle English smith and Old English smið, which is possibly a derivative of smitan meaning ‘to strike, hammer’. Metal-working was one of the earliest occupations for which specialist skills were required, and its importance ensured that this surname and its equivalents were perhaps the most widespread of all occupational surnames in Europe. This is the most frequent of all British and American surnames. Other examples of occupational surnames include Chandler a maker or seller of candles, Taylor, Faulkner from falconer, Burgess and Bishop.
Strong is a name from Middle English strong or strang meaning ‘strong’, probably a nickname for a strong man but perhaps sometimes applied ironically to a weakling. Other examples include Reid, and its English equivalent Read, which is a nickname for a person with red hair or a ruddy complexion, from
Older Scots reid ‘red’. Small is a nickname for a person of slender build or diminutive stature, from Middle English smal ‘thin’, ‘narrow’. There are examples of nickname based surnames from other European languages, such as German Klein and Schmal and French Petit.
Bob is the Education Liaison Officer of The Guild of One-Name Studies and can be reached at email@example.com
Studying a surname and identifying its roots and distribution can be particularly helpful in tracking down people who have migrated overseas and finding the right person from multiple candidates.