What’s in a surname?

The history of British surnames offers a fascinating insight into our collective heritage

Each of us, from birth, carries a fossil. Neither we nor our parents have any say in the matter. Yet these blocks form the most revealing picture of the colourful and obscure corners of British life. Yes: the surname is more powerful than the whole panoply of the English language for uncovering our shared, hidden past.

It didn’t start this way: the Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians got by with one name, as did those Viking upstarts, the Normans. But the injection of their limited crop of forenames into Britain prompted the addition of a second element to distinguish one Robert or William from another. Several surnames had sprung up organically by the time of the Domesday Book; by the close of the 14th century most Englishmen had surnames. Eventually, Henry VIII formalised the practice of adopting the father’s surname.

How then did these descriptive bynames arise? There were four obvious ways to describe the chap across the other side of the village: where he lived, who his father was, what he spent his day doing, and what he looked or acted like. These simple categories cover 90 per cent of the 50,000 British surnames. About half of these refer to the first holder’s home town (Badham, Newton, Pendle), nationality (English, Scott, Devenish) or local features (Field, Kirk, Mill).

A smaller crop of very common names reflect family relationships, especially the father’s name. That father’s heritage is ingrained in the patronymic form: English –s or –son, Irish Ó or Mac, Scottish Mc, or the vestiges of Welsh ap. Several names reflect the original mediaeval occupation: Baker, Cheeseman, Spicer. The liveliest class is the community nickname. Often these are ironic, and sometimes aggressive: Pudding for the fat man, Short for the tall, or Merriman for the miser.

A flick through The Spectator reveals this spread — of toponyms (Liddle, Murray, Parris, Wakefield), patronymics (Nelson, Anderson, O’Neill), occupations (Clark, Howse) and nicknames (Forsyth, Gray, Hardman, Swift, Young). Moore disguises many sources. It’s easy to get these classes confused: Ramsbottom may look like a pointed nickname, but is topographical; so is Marriage. De’Ath seems to parade foreign heritage, but actually derives from Death (a nickname!) and reflects a forlorn attempt to make the holder less sinister.

The practice of aristocratic families preserving their unions in hyphen-riddled surnames has declined. But in recent decades double-barrelled names have become very common elsewhere in society. One really can now meet the country’s two most common surnames at once: there’s many a ‘Mr Smith-Jones’.

Few countries could compete with the variety of British surnames, which can stretch from the blink-and-you-miss-it By and Og to the sprawling Featherstonehaugh (mercifully pronounced as two syllables). Some names are strikingly rare: there are just five Brattins, three Goodboys and one Naturel.

But most admirable are those who’ve shouldered a difficult name: spare a thought for the Bigot, the Nutter, the Sweatman. In fact, there’s a form of nominative galvanising here: such folk will be tough and fully deserving of a firm handshake.


Close