Research your surname

Research your surname

Our surnames are a key part of our identity, but we often know little about their origins. Here are some tips for finding out more

How to, How to

How to

How to

Exploring the history of your surname is unlikely to help with growing your family tree, but it’s interesting to imagine where your most distant ancestors lived and what they did, and to understand a little more about something you carry with you through life. In recent times, computer analysis of surname distributions and DNA testing have helped shed extra light on the origins of many names.

Place names account for around half of surname origins, so you may well find a geographical link to your name; occupations and patronymics, ie being named after a father’s first name, account for the origins of most others.

Dictionaries of surnames are an obvious place to start – though surnames expert Dr Graeme Davis warns that many of them can be unreliable, and tend to put an overemphasis on nickname-derived names with precious little evidence. See our list of books and resources here for some of the best places to look.

Even if your surname doesn’t derive from a particular place name, the excellent online surname profiling sites explored on these pages reveal just how names tend to be associated with particular parts of the country anyway – and that could indeed hold clues for more standard genealogy.

Back in 2007 a DNA study by the University of Leicester even managed to demonstrate that more than a third of men with a rare surname from Yorkshire had a Y chromosome type associated with people from West Africa – as this science progresses, perhaps your surname will reveal similar surprises!

Discover your surname’s origins and distribution online

Head to and search for a person.
Click on ‘view map of results’ under the record type, this map reveals the distribution of the surname Bright in the 1881 census. Note how it is particularly concentrated in three areas of the country: Essex, Brecon and North Devon.


Now turn to the millennium by searching for births in the year 2000. For Bright, the same three areas remain strongest, but you can see how it has spread more into neighbouring ones.

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In Focus: Surnames

Rank 2007 1881 Place (2007) Meaning (2007 list)
1 Smith Smith Shetland An occupation name from the trade smith – typically a blacksmith, but also on occasions a goldsmith or silversmith
2 Jones Jones Blaenau Ffestiniog It means simply John’s son, and has arisen independently many times. Frequently it is a surname of recent origin, often as recent as the 18th century
3 Williams Williams Marianglas A patronymic strongly associated with Wales, the Welsh borders and South West England
4 Brown Brown Newmilns The most common surname whose origin is not known
5 Taylor Taylor Oldham An occupation name which arose independently many times (the spelling Tailor is uncommon)
6 Davies Davies Llanybyther The name is a patronymic, son of David, and has arisen independently many times
7 Wilson Wilson Beith Another patronymic from William, common in lowland Scotland and north England, especially Cumbria
8 Evans Evans Llanybyther A patronymic from the Welsh first name Evan, usually of recent origin and frequently formed in the 18th century
9 Thomas Thomas Llanfymach A patronymic, the son of Thomas, frequently an 18th-century formation in south Wales
10 Roberts Roberts Dolwyddelan A patronymic from the first name Robert, common in north Wales
11 Johnson Johnson Shetland A variant of Jones, typically found in northern and eastern England
12 Walker Walker Leeds A trade name, a walker being another term for fuller or wool cleaner
13 Wright White Holt Wright is an occupational name from wheelwright, common in eastern England
14 Robinson Wright Barnard Castle Another patronymic from Robert (and more rarely Robin), most often found in the north of England and the East Midlands
15 Thompson Wood Belford Another patronymic from Thomas, common in the north of England
16 Hughes Robinson Tycroes A patronymic, meaning son of Hugh, a Norman name later strong in Wales
17 White Clark Wareham A trade name, strong in southern England, from white or silver smiths
18 Edwards Thompson Bala Another patronymic, from Edward, again common in Wales
19 Hall Hall Houghton-le-Spring A location name, a trade name (hall retainer) and a patronymic (from Hal, short for Harry/Henry)
20 Patel Green Wembley A Hindu and Parsi name literally meaning ‘village headman’

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