There are many ways of finding out about your origins- your facial features; your DNA; asking elderly relatives; record-based research into the family tree- and your surname. It may be able to tell you whereabouts in the country or the world your surname-line ancestors originated; what they did; what they looked like- or even what the neighbours thought of them!
Investigating surnames is a complex discipline, requiring knowledge of French, Anglo-Saxon, Norse and experience of how words altered names changed over the centuries. But this ready-reckoner can point you in the right direction.
- Is your surname a place name? Names like London, Hastings and Beckham all indicate an ancestor who came from the place, probably in the 12th or 13th centuries. This group of surnames are called ‘locative surnames’. Your ancestor may have owned the place, or may have been a regular inhabitant who left and settled elsewhere, becoming known as ‘John from Beckham’ and, after time, simply ‘John Beckham’.
- Is your surname a geographical feature? Names like Hill, Wood and Street tell us that an ancestor lived on, near or next to one of the features described. In his ancestral village, John who lived on the hill would be distinguished from John who lived in the wood by a simple nickname, which later became a surname. There are other ‘topographic’ surnames, as they are known, hidden behind the ancient languages. Atlee, for example means someone who lived ‘at the lee’, a lee being Saxon for a meadow, and Sykes is from the Viking word for a drainage ditch!
- Is your surname a personal name? Many people were known by the name of their father or mother and, in the 12th and 13th centuries, these names stuck and became hereditary surnames. Adam, Moses and Marrian indicate people with parents called Adam, Moses and Mary respectively. Names ending –s or –son mean the same- Richardson and Richards both mean ‘son of Richard. Look out too for nicknames- Dickson means ‘son of Dick’, and so too does Dickinson, because the ‘-in’ on the end of the name was a diminutive, the equivalent of our ‘-y’, i.e. when we say Tommy, our Medieval ancestors would have said ‘Tomkin’. Some nicknames are no longer used. Hodgson and Hodgkinson, for example, come from Hodge, which was a nickname for someone called Roger, and Sander (as in Sanderson) was a nickname for Alexander.
- Is your surname a nickname? Some nicknames are obvious, like Little, Redhead and Wiseman, meaning that an ancestor was small, had red hair or was clever- but remember how nicknames arose at school as jokes: ‘John Wiseman’ may have been thick as two short planks and John Little a strapping six feet tall. Other nicknames include Armstrong, and Fox- a nickname for someone who was cunning (or perhaps, as we have seen, stupid). Some names, like King and Prince, may indicate the parts played each year by ancestors in Medieval mystery plays.
- Is your surname a job? If surnames were still being created, then there would be hosts of children surnamed Busdriver, Postman and Programmer, but instead many of us carry reminders of what our ancestors did in the Middle Ages, when last names were becoming hereditary. Nailer, Waterman and Farmer tell us what a forebear did- made nails, transported people by water and cultivated the soil- and so too do Fuller, Fletcher and Cordiner: fullers bleached cloth, fletchers made arrows and cordwainers made shoes out of high quality leather from Cordoba in Spain.
The examples used here are mainly English, but most other countries, from Africa to the Far East, follow the same rules. Surnames reflecting fathers’ names are probably the most popular, but all types are represented and a basic knowledge of the language from which the surname comes should unlock its meaning without too much difficulty.
Beware, though: some surnames can be misleading. Lucy sounds like ‘son of Lucy’ but actually means ‘from Luci’, a village in Normandy. Sometimes, expert input and reference the oldest available references to the surname is required to make sure that the definition is correct. Contact me if you would like your surname investigated and a professional report written, either for your own interest or as a present for Christmas, birthdays or other anniversaries.