How Names Originated - Place Names - Sire-names - Trade Names and Nicknames - Names Derived from Official Positions - How Names Have Changed in the Course of Centuries

"There can be very few people who have not speculated at one time or another as to how they - or, rather, their ancestors - came by the name they bear, and as to how some of the extraordinary names that one occasionally meets with ever came to be adopted as a family appellation.

The study of surnames is, indeed, a fascinating inquiry to pursue, for it is one that is full of human interest, and there is no name so common or so queer but has a history attached to it, which, if we could but follow it out, would often shed much light on the past fortunes of the family who bear it, particularly in the case of the middle classes, so few of whom have retained family records extending over any length of time.

A Fascinating Study

But to the student of surnames it is clear that one man's ancestors were of Norman origin, that another's came from one particular parish, or that another's were Dutch, or Lombard, or Huguenot emigrants who settled in this country at different periods; while the names of many folks of high degree to-day point out as indubitably that they are sprung from quite humble craftsmen or servants, little as they may be prepared to admit it. Dozens of names in the peerage and baronetage - and some of the most honourable of them all - testify to this.

It cannot be said with any certainty when surnames first came into use, and were handed on from father to son, but they were quite unknown in this country before the Conquest, and it was not until the fourteenth century that they came into anything like general use, though, among the land-owning class, we find them from the middle of the eleventh century onwards. It is rather interesting to note that the first thirty-four Archbishops of Canterbury, and the first thirty-three Bishops of London, were known by their Christian names alone. In Scotland the introduction of surnames was considerably later, and even in the days of James I. and VI. many Scots had no hereditary name, but changed it as and when they, or their neighbours, felt disposed.

How Surnames Originated

According to Mr. Baring Gould, the adoption of surnames was largely due to the fact that when the English Church was Latinised - after the Conquest - parents were discouraged, if not actually forbidden, to give their children the old Saxon names, but were forced to call them after the saints in the Roman calendar - much smaller then than it is now - or after their Norman masters.

The result was that every town and village bristled with Johns and Jameses and Williams ana men bearing other scriptural names. This did not matter as long as trade was almost non-existent, and each community was an independent and isolated unit, in which everybody knew everybody else, and people hardly ever left their native place. But as the population increased, and with it trade and communication between different parts of the country, Christian names ceased to be a sufficient identification. So, to distinguish themselves from others of the same name, men began to assume a second name.

The first to do this were the nobles and landowners, who, naturally, were known by the name of their estates. In the same way, many humbler folks became known by the name of the place from which they came, so that to-day one of the largest divisions in the classification of surnames is that of place-names.

Although many of the names now to be seen in our directories appear meaningless or inexplicable, every one of them originally had some quite definite signification attached to it. They may be divided into four main classes :

Place names.

Sire-names (including patronymics, i.e., names derived from baptismal names).

Trade names.


Of these, the first is the largest class, closely followed by the second, though Wales is an exception to this rule, which applies to Western Europe generally. " Here," says Mr.bardsley, ' there is scarcely a trade name, only a few nicknames, no official surnames that I know of, a sprinkling of local surnames and the rest - quite ninety-five per cent - are baptismal names."

Surnames with Meanings

It is, of course, possible to classify names much further than this. The class of nicknames, for instance, can be subdivided almost indefinitely into such classes as bird and beast names, like Crowe and Wolffe; names given in consequence of some personal characteristic, such as Bragg. Drinkwater, Boniface, Strong; names relating to dress, such as Burrell (a kind of coarse cloth), or Ribbons; names taken from relationships, such as Neave (the nephew), Cousins, Younghusband. In the same way trade names may be divided into those connected with special trades - for example, the wool trade, which gave us hundreds of names - those connected with some official position such as Bailey, Chamberlain, Squire, Justice, Bishop, and so on. Again, patronymics - names meaning " the son of " - deserve a division to themi X selves, and so do the foreign names that have crept into the language at different times, to say nothing of Scottish and Irish names.

All sorts of pitfalls await the unwary inquirer who desires to trace a name back to its original source, owing to the extraordinary metamorphoses and corruption that many names have undergone, owing chiefly, no doubt, to the laxity of our ancestors in the matter of spelling, and, in the case of foreign names, the persistency with which they have been smoothed or roughened into something approaching an English name.

Some Curious Derivations

Who, for instance, would guess that Bullivant was originally Bon-enfant, or that Hitchcock was one of the innumerable derivatives from Richard ? Another very favourite practice was to translate Norman names into an English equivalent, the names Cutbush (from Fr. Taille-bois), and Fairbrother (from Beaufrere), being good examples of this. How easy it is to go astray in deriving names is afforded by a study of the so-called fish names, of which there are a number - such as Spratt, Chubb, Haddock, Roach, all of which have now been traced to other sources. Thus, Haddock is simply Haydock, a place-name; while Roach was originally De la Roche. Then, again, some names beginning with "B" are contractions of the Welsh prefix Ap (son of). For example, Bevan (Ap-Evan, Badham (Ap-Adam), Beddoes (Ap-Eddow), Applin (Ap-Lyon), and so forth.

Another very fertile source of error is the desire of some people to connect themselves, by hook or by crook, with noble or ancient families. Many amusing stories can be told in this connection. A very favourite boast with such people, whose names happen to be of Norman origin, is that their ancestors came over with William the Conqueror. How far this fact is from being the patent of respectability that they appear to think it may be gathered from a study of the list of tenants of the village of Battle, in Sussex, while the abbey was being built. Of a hundred and fifteen householders, thirty-nine were Normans, three of them being cobblers, one a cook, while others followed the trades of brewers, smith, miller, and weaver.

Some of these, no doubt, did, as very many retainers of the Norman barons are known to have done, assume their master's name. But the descendants of these humble retainers to-day are in many cases happy in the reflection that their family owes its origin to the Norman noble whose name they bear, and nothing would convince them to the contrary.

Trade Names

Of course, in the old days there was no middle class, as we understand it now, and consequently none of the stigma that now attaches to the word " trade." Men then were proud of their trade ; entrance to the different trade guilds was as jealously guarded as it is to the City Companies to-day, and it was the custom for sons to follow in their fathers' footsteps. This, no doubt, accounts to a large extent for the immense number of our trade names, though in many cases the trade represented by the name has long since vanished. But even now, in many parts of the country, a man is often known by the name of the trade he follows rather than by his proper surname, and goes among his fellows by some such sobriquet as Miller Dick or Cobbler Joe, and this survival of old custom helps us to realise something of the process of name-giving which was continually going on in those far-past centuries when England, under her Norman rulers, was first waking from the sleep of ages, and Saxon and Norman were gradually settling down to live in amity.