One of the best ways to find out about the lives of your ancestors is through their surnames, which often contain clues as to their professions, and what kind of lives they could have led. Surnames themselves have a history, only being introduced in England by the Normans in 1066, a practice that would spread across the British Isles. At first, surnames were fluid and could change through the generations, or even when someone changed his job, so that “John Blacksmith” could become “John Thatcher” to reflect his new career. Nevertheless, by the 15th century, surnames in England and lowland Scotland had been standardised and become hereditary, which makes our job much easier.
Common surnames such as Smith, Wright, Cook, Taylor and Turner are all based on trades or jobs which were common in that period. Less common occupations these days would include Knight, Thatcher, Squire and Fletcher.
Not all surnames came from such formal sources, however. Nicknames or descriptive names such as Redhead, Black, Fox, Little and Armstrong were used, and sometimes stuck over the ages..
Indeed, some of the oldest surnames come from place names, whether generic such as Heath or Dale, as well as specific, such as Preston.
Surnames could even be derived from the name of a parent, so that “David’s son” could become Davidson or Davids, or “Peter’s son” become Peterson or Peters. This practice accounts for a large number of Welsh surnames, and Jones (from “John’s son”) is the most common of all.
However, what are the most common surnames, and what do they signify?
The top ten are:
Smith – An English and Scottish occupational name from the Middle English period (1150 – 1470) for someone who works with metal, such as a blacksmith.
Jones – Indicating son of John.
Williams – Indicating son of William. Interestingly, William is an adaptation of the German name Willihelms, meaning ‘desire and protection’.
Taylor – The Middle English word for a tailor.
Davies – A Welsh patronymic name, originally derived from ‘Dafydd’s son’.
Brown – English and Scottish nickname for someone with brown hair.
Wilson – English patronymic, short for ‘son of Will’.
Evans – Son of Evan, which was Welsh for John.
Thomas – English and Welsh name drawn from the New Testament, after Saint Thomas the Apostle.
Johnson – English patronymic name meaning ‘son of John’, derived from the Hebrew Johanon, meaning ‘God has favoured’.
As you can see, the ten most common names in Britain originate from a wide variety of sources, and can mean many things. What could your name mean?