What is in a name?

What is in a name?

Are you a Miller or a Waterhouse? Your surname can reveal details of your family’s earliest origins, as Dr Graeme Davis explains

Dr Graeme Davis, university lecturer and professional researcher

Dr Graeme Davis

university lecturer and professional researcher

The bedrock of the naming system in the British Isles is the first name. In the early Middle Ages people had just one name, what we think of today as the given name or Christian name.

The names ‘Mills’ or ‘Miller’ typically came from the occupation

In the early Middle Ages a much greater range of first names was used than we use today. Nevertheless, often the need was felt to distinguish between two bearers of the same first name. This was done by use of a by-name, a descriptive add-on. Typically this was a statement of the lands the person owned, the place where they lived or their occupation. Sometimes it was a patronymic (someone’s son) and more rarely a nickname. These by-names were used on occasions and for a purpose. One person might be known by several different by-names during their life, or known by a byname only within a one-off, formal context. The person described by a by-name was unlikely to regard it as part of their name. Nor would a by-name pass to someone’s children.

A surname is a development of a by-name which has the special characteristic of being passed on to children. It is a name held in addition to the first name – the sense of the word surname is ‘super name’, a name held over and above the main one. The British Isles very early regularized the inheritance of surnames as passing from father to children, much as property was inherited.

There are very few types of origin for surnames, both in the British Isles and in the rest of the world. In a nutshell, these are as follows:

  • Place names. These include both precise places as the name of a town or a village as well as what appear to be landscape or typographic features such as hill, river.
  • Occupation names
  • Patronymics
  • Nicknames.

Of these, the place names are by far the most common. Occupation names and patronymics account for most of the rest, with nicknames being rare.

It is often difficult to decide which category a surname belongs to. Thus Mills may be a place name in origin – from any of countless place names which include the element ‘mill’. It may be an occupation name, a miller. Or it may be a patronymic, the son of Miles. It may even be all three, with the name having arisen separately at least three times.


Surnames were an idea that came to the British Isles with the Norman Conquest. Most British Isles surnames were formed in the period 1066-1400. This may be regarded as the great age of surname formation in England, Scotland and Ireland – Welsh surnames are generally later. Surnames have been formed in every subsequent century. They have also been brought to Britain by centuries of migrants.

Very often we cannot quite identify the first bearer of a particular name, but rather a group of early bearers. An 18th-century description of the Douglas family applies equally well to the vast majority of British Isles surnames: “We do not know them in the fountain but in the stream; not in the root but in the stock and stem, for we know not who was the first mean man that did raise… himself above the vulgar.” (Hume of Godscroft, History of the House and Race of Douglas, 1743)

Place-derived names account for around half of the surnames in the British Isles. At its simplest a surname and a place name will be identical, and the surname will derive from the place name. Sometimes it really is that simple.

Crests, Supporters, Badges etcCuriosities of HeraldrySeal of Sir Richard de Beauchamp
Heraldry is associated with noble surnames

There are, however, all sorts of complicating factors:

  • Place names have themselves changed over the centuries. For example, the Domesday Book (1086) forms of place names are frequently different from the forms we know today. Even in the 13th and 14th centuries, when most surnames came into being, place names had often not assumed their present forms.
  • Many place names have vanished, often as the settlement they refer to has itself vanished.
  • Many surnames derive from very small communities or from names for areas of land, which are often not well recorded in modern atlases.
  • Many places have nicknames as well as official names – and often it is the nicknames that give rise to surnames. London’s Petticoat Lane is famous worldwide yet it appears on the map under its official name of Middlesex Street.
  • Places can take their names from people. It is much more likely that a farmhouse will take its name from a person than vice versa.

The strongest ground for someone being named after a place is that they actually own that place. The practice is still found in Scotland where the owner of a particular estate is usually called Laird of that estate, with the title passing with the property. In England the equivalent is Lord of the Manor, with the courtesy title of Lord. Again the title passes with the estate, and today it is even possible to purchase fragments of land which were once part of a big estate and to which the legal title Lord of the Manor is attached. Such lordships can in effect be bought and sold.

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In medieval usage estate titles were used much as we use surnames. The lands were passed from father to son, so the estate title was transmitted much as a surname is. Additionally the son of a landowner was frequently granted the title Master plus the name of the estate. In such circumstances it was easy for an estate name to convert to a surname.

As a starting point it is most probable that someone who bears a place-name surname is descended from the owner of that estate.

One of the biggest groups of surnames is of those derived from occupations. Many of them are very easy to spot: Baker, Brewer, Smith, Clerk, Weaver, Mason and Taylor. The convention of an occupation being passed from father to son facilitated the adoption of occupation names as surnames. Names of this sort are more common in England than elsewhere in the British Isles.

Most British Isles occupational names started in the 13th and 14th centuries. There are certainly earlier and later examples, but an age of around six or seven centuries – maybe up to two dozen generations – is a good starting assumption for these surnames.

The occupations remembered are of course those of a past age. Some of them may not be immediately obvious today because the occupation name has changed or the occupation has been lost. Thus Fletcher is the surname of an arrow maker while Furrier is someone who worked with animal pelts.

'Brewer’ is another typical occupational surname

The more common occupational names are presumably polygenetic, that is, created many times. Future study may well identify a handful of originators of widespread surnames such as Brewer and Baker – or may alternatively conclude that there were very many occasions when these surnames were adopted. Unusual occupational names are likely to be monogenetic. Thus for example Shakespeare (a pike-man in the medieval army) is probably an example of an occupational name with a single point of origin.

Shakespeare is an occupational nickhame; Cromwell comes from a place-name; and Nelson may be a metronym

These extracts are reprinted with thanks from Research Your Surname and Your Family Tree (ISBN 9781845284343) by Dr Graeme Davis, published by How To Books – www.howtobooks.com.

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