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Surnames, Genes and Genealogy

Origins of surnames

Before the Norman Conquest English people did not have hereditary surnames. They were usually known just by a personal name. If they had a nickname as well, this was not passed on to their children. It was the Norman barons who introduced surnames into this country, and the fashion gradually spread to other families, but it was a long drawn out process. Most English people and Lowland Scots had hereditary surnames by 1400, but new surnames were still being formed much later and immigrants brought a fresh supply. Many Irish and Highland Scottish names are derived from Gaelic personal names, as are those of the Welsh, who began to adopt English-type surnames after the union of the two countries in 1536.

After the Norman Conquest the numerous personal names that had been used by the English fell out of favour and a narrow choice of names became available. By the fourteenth century half the men in a typical village were called either John or William and most of the rest were called Thomas, Richard, Robert or Henry. This was indeed the period when every Tom, Dick and Harry acquired a surname. From soon after the Conquest, therefore, men were distinguished from their neighbours by a second name (a 'by-name'), but the circumstances in which these names were passed on to their descendants were complicated. Fashion played a part, as did the new practice of keeping written records such as manor court rolls, but the inheritance of a name undoubtedly had much to do with the inheritance of property, status or occupation.

Some of the personal names that were in use before the Norman Conquest survived long enough to be inherited directly as surnames, including the Anglo-Saxon Cobbold and the Viking Oddi, both of which may have single-family origins. In other cases a son acquired his surname by adding -s or -son to his father's name. The -s method was favoured in the south of England and in the western border counties (where the practice was later copied by the Welsh), while -son was preferred in the northern half of England and lowland Scotland and was a late development of the second half of the fourteenth century. Occasionally, -son was added to a mother's name, as in Mallinson or Tillotson - both from Matilda.

The small pool of personal names meant that pet forms and shortened versions were commonly used and that many of these became surnames. Some were rhyming forms, such as Dobson, Hobson and Robson (based on the pet form of Robert). Others were pet forms with -kin, -cock or -ot added. The son of William might therefore end up with the surname Williams or Williamson, but other possibilities include Will, Willett, Wills, Willis, Willimott, Wilson, Wilkins, Wilkinson, Wilcox or Wilcockson.

Sometimes a nickname became a hereditary surname. Names such as Fox, from the animal, or White, perhaps from the hair or complexion, are widespread, but the pronounced regional distribution of names such as Nice in Essex or Wildgoose in Derbyshire suggests single-family origins. In some cases nicknames are from Norman French words, such as Papillon (butterfly) or Foljambe (deformed leg).

Other surnames were formed from a person's job or trade. Names such as Cook, Turner or Wright are very common, but the rarer occupational names are sometimes as restricted in their distribution as other names that originated with only one or two families. The Arkwrights (makers of arks or chests) are from Lancashire, the Crappers (croppers) and Frobishers (furbishers or cleaners of armour) are from Yorkshire, the Dymonds (dairymen) are from Devon. On the other hand, some distinctive names were influenced by more prolific occupational names, and names which started out as Goldsmith, Combsmith or Smithson may have become Smith - a further complication when Smith's distribution is being considered.

A large group of surnames are derived from place names, often minor ones. Names of prominent towns and villages, such as Pickering and Bedford, might be given to migrants who left at the period of surname formation, but in other cases they were the names of local lords of the manor. Many more people took the name of their farm or hamlet. In counties where settlement was scattered, up to half the families took their names in this way - one reason why the Pennines and Devon have so many distinctive names. Features of the landscape which gave rise to surnames, again via settlement sites, include some which are common, e.g. Green, Hill or Wood, as well as others such as Fieldsend or Greenwood which may have a single source.

We shall never know why families chose one type of surname rather than another. Often they had no choice in the matter, for their names were bestowed by their neighbours. Although the national population was considerably lower in the Middle Ages than it is today, far more surnames were then in use. Many of them, however, did not survive the Black Death.

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