The origins of UK surnames and the impacts on genealogy

The origins of UK surnames and the impacts on genealogy

Feb 7, 2024 3:16:12 PM

By Chris Eickhoff
Case Manager in the Genealogical Research team at Title Research

One of my favourite areas of genealogical research is surnames and their history and etymology. Outside of the feudal nobility and gentry, surnames became more popular in the UK after the Norman Conquest in 1066. A variety of factors at this point in history – including rapid population growth and an expanding legal system – required individuals to be identified in greater detail. Particularly in the UK, the introduced surnames seem to fall into four main groups:

  • description,

  • location,

  • occupation,

  • and patronym.

Surnames were not initially hereditary but gradually became so by the 1300s.

What are the origins of UK surnames?

Descriptive surnames would have been adjectives used to identify the character or traits of the correct person. For example, Little, Swift, or Wise. Location-based surnames like Rivers, Cliff, or Marsh would have been used to describe where an individual lived or came from. Occupational surnames such as Smith, Cooper, or Baker noted the job the individual had in a community. Given that occupations could span generations, these surnames became the first to be hereditary.

Patronymic surnames indicate the first name of the person’s father. This can be seen in examples like Stephenson, Jones, and McDonald. Non-hereditary patronymic surnames can still be found in Iceland, where surnames are still based upon the name of the father or occasionally mother, using the suffix -son (if male) or -dóttir (if female).

This explains the frequent nature of specific surnames. Some occupational surnames are more commonplace than others simply because more individuals practiced those occupations at the time. Less widespread occupations and their corresponding surnames may therefore have disappeared throughout history.

Patronymic surnames can be much more frequent in certain regions. For instance, surnames such as Jones, Williams, and Thomas are common in Wales. The leading theory is that this is because of historic Welsh Law requirements, in which it was required to note an individual’s lineage in legal proceedings. Names such as John, William, and Thomas are common and therefore became more popular when turned into surnames.

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Can surnames cause challenges in genealogical research?

The popularity of certain surnames, especially in specific areas, makes genealogical research a challenge for some families. Unfortunately, the idea of the surname as an identification tool is lost in these occurrences, and differentiation becomes more difficult when identifying individuals across large datasets. For example, births are indexed under the father’s surname and mother’s maiden surname.

To search the issue between John Smith and Joanna Davies would be problematic – even when limited to a certain area and timeframe. Alternative sources of information outside of these indexes, particularly family testimony, become much more helpful when understanding the family’s extent.

Where alternative information is not so readily available, we conduct as much research as feasible to obtain indemnity cover and mitigate potential risk. This provides a solution that allows our client to distribute with peace of mind.

How immigration can affect UK surnames

With some surnames growing more popular with each generation through intermarriage, you could assume that the pool of surnames would be shrinking. However, new surnames seem to be emerging in the UK, mainly due to immigration. Not only does this introduce surnames from different languages and cultures, but also a variety of spelling.

As a Case Manager on the genealogy team, I have investigated several families with surnames difficult to pronounce or spell in English. Throughout the research and the family’s generations, I have noticed the surname gradually become anglicised to the point where the surname is both spelled and pronounced differently, thus becoming a new surname. Similarly, choosing a different surname has been a common occurrence in the UK’s immigration history, as it offers a way for first-generation immigrants to assimilate themselves into the UK – particularly when looking for employment.

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The emergence of new surnames

New surnames can also present in the form of the double-barrel. This form has become increasingly popular, as historically women would have taken their spouse’s surname, whereas more recently we are seeing a rise in double-married names. Issues with double-barreled surnames include deciding which surname will go first, or whether a triple-barreled name may be a step too far.

Deed Poll provides a solution in the form of what it labels as ’meshing’, where two surnames are combined to form one – such as Davies and Fisher becoming Dasher. Despite being on the rise, new surnames in this manner are still a rarity. In 2016, YouGov quoted that 59% of women in the UK still would still like to take their spouse’s name upon marriage, presumably also passing on to their children.

Despite this, the shifting landscape in families challenging the tradition rooted in surnames raises its own questions. Which surname should the child of a same-sex marriage take? How should birth indexes record children born from surrogacy or donorship? Should Deed Poll name changes become publicly available? What should a surname now indicate – if anything?

Historically, surnames have had a key function: identity, ancestry, and nationality. However, the nature of the surname is beginning to see significant transformations that reflect the shifting social and cultural evolutions present today. The alterations in surname traditions pose challenges in various forms, for both administrative and genealogical purposes. This newly dynamic character in surnames presents just one of the many challenges modern genealogy encounters and, although still quite rare, requires attention and adaptation.

We are experts in genealogical research and have an excellent success rate for locating missing beneficiaries. We work with professional Executors to ensure the estate administration process is completed efficiently and accurately. To discuss our genealogical research services, call our Client Services Team on 0345 87 27 600 or fill in the form below.


Topics: Genealogical research, Surnames