Last Names
A name shared in common to identify the members of a family, as distinguished from each member's given, or first, name. Also called family name, surname and cognomen. (A cognomen not only means a Last Names but is also used to describe the last of the three names of a person among the ancient Romans, denoting his house or family). Surnames originally described occupations, estates, places of residence, or some particular things or events that related to the person.

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History of Last Names
Going back in time, before the 10th century, takes us to an era where people were usually only referred to by their first name. The Romans, and their society, were the exceptions and this is further explained by the above definition of a cognomen. The vast majority of people did not travel a great deal and lived in small communities where their first name distinguished them from each other. First names were not duplicated within a village so there was no confusion. Increases in population, travel and different cultures influenced this custom and second names, or surnames, were slowly introduced. The oldest surnames recorded anywhere in Europe can be found in Irish historical records dating back to the year 916. According to Friar Woulfe, an authority on the Irish Last Name, the first recorded text details O'Clery (Ó Cleirigh) detailing the death of Tigherneach Ua Cleirigh, lord of Aidhne in County Galway.

The introduction of Last Names
An illustration of why surnames were introduced can be taken from what happened in England. In the 13th century almost one third of the men in England were called either John, Richard or William. This obviously started to cause considerable confusion when people started to move away from their own villages. To ease the situation people were referred to as William the son of Robert which lead to the formation of Robertson. Alternatively William could also be distinguished by his occupation for example William the baker to the name of Baker or Richard the Gardner leading to Gardiner.

Spellings of Last Names
Our surnames date back hundreds of years. Many of our ancestors would have been illiterate! How were surnames recorded in the past? Many administrators were either atrocious or negligent when it came to recording a name - so many official documents have resulted in different spellings leading to minefield when researching Last Names! This can be illustrated by looking at a name that is known throughout the World - William Shakespeare. The surname Shakespeare was spelt in an astonishing variety of ways including Shakspere, Shakespere, Shakkespere, Shaxpere, Shakstaff, Sakspere, Shagspere, Shakeshafte and even Chacsper. The name of William Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare, occurs 166 times in the Council Book of the Stratford corporation, and appears to take 16 different forms! Our thanks go to for this information. The confusion in relation to the spellings, or mis-spellings, of surnames account for many derivatives of one particular name.

The English Alphabet has changed!
To add to the general confusion of surrounding the spelling of surnames, there is also the additional problem in that the English alphabet has changed over the years! This can make the task of reading old English documents extremely confusing! The Tudor alphabet contained 24/25 letters, as opposed to the present day alphabet of 26 letters, and the letters "u" and "v" were the same letter as were and "i" and "j". The "j" was usually used as the capital form of the "i". The "u" was used only in the middle of a word, and the "v" was used at the beginning. The other difference was that there was another letter which resembled a "y" which was used to represent the "th" sound. So the word "the" was written in a similar way as "ye" would in the present day. Some words were also spelt with and additional "e" at the end. And finally, numbers were frequently given in lower case Roman numerals, with the last "i" in a number written as a "j". For example, viij March. It explains the many derivatives of one particular last name. 

Meanings & Origins of Last Names
Meanings are derived from ideas conveyed by something, such as a word, action, gesture, or situation. Whereas origins are the point at which they originate, their inception, source or root. For ease of reference the information on this page is a combination of both meanings and origins of a last name. Surnames are derived from several main categories:

  • Meanings or origins that relate to a place
  • Adopted or transferred
  • Meanings or origins that describe a profession, trade or status
  • Meanings or origins that are connected to Nationalities
  • Last name meanings or origins that are descriptive reflecting a physical or characteristic attribute or have been derived from nicknames

Perfect examples of descriptive English origins
Most people are familiar with the legend of Robin Hood and the people featured in this story. Here's a reminder of some of them:

Robin Hood
A descriptive name from 'Robin in the hood'
Little John
A descriptive name describing a physical characteristic
Maid Marion
A descriptive name describing a characteristic i.e. Maid
Alan a Dale
First name combined with a place name
Friar Tuck
Name reflecting a status i.e. Friar
Much the Miller's son
Family name combined with a trade name
Will Scarlet
A descriptive name

Place Last Names (Toponymic - a name derived from a place or a region)

  • The most common Last Name origins are derived from an actual place name. This is particularly relevant to English Surnames. People were given those that indicated a specific place name such as London, Ireland, England, Eaton, York or Washington.
  • Another type of place name described an actual residence, location or workplace such as Hall, Smith, Heath, Bridges, Brook, Castle or Woods 

Last Names are often derivatives of Nationalities such as English, Welsh, Scott or French.

Trades, Professions or status related English Last Names
Surnames are often derived from Trades, Craftsmen, Professions or Official and other forms of status are legion but many of their origins have been lost in time. Here are some examples of common last name's and their often forgotten origins:

A professional Archer
Fitted hoops on barrels
A bailiff
A killer of hogs
A cart maker
A doctor
A chaplain
A stone worker
A candle maker
A nail maker
A barrel maker
A steward
A dairy worker
A thatcher (reed man)
An arrow maker
A wood sawer
Polished armour and swords
A wheel maker
A gardener
A watchman
Descriptive Last Names
Surnames are often derived from physical or characteristic attributes. The origins of many of these descriptive type of name have also been lost over the years:
A strong arm
A brown haired man
Curly hair
A tall man
Dark complexion like a Moor
A red haired man
A soldier, who carried, or shook, a spear
A strong man

A Last Name with a family connection!
They often come from family connections such as Johnson (John's son) Robertson and even Nixon (Nick's son). Similar names in this category are those names beginning with Mc, Mac or Fitz such as McDonald or Fitzpatrick. There were also the first types such as William, Phillip, Edward, and Hugh which were changed to Williams, Phillips, Edwards, and Hughes. ( From, for example, William's son or Edward's son). Adopting such surnames was extremely important as they provided permanent proof of verifiable ties of blood, family and kin. Therefore the history connected to a powerful ancestor could be passed down the generations. Gaelic Last Name's beginning with Ó or Mac immediately identify significant family ties and the heritage of a specific nationality such as Irish or Scottish.

The Invaders!
Last names were changed and foreign ones were adopted when a country was invaded or conquered. British history has been strongly influenced by such events. The Roman invasion, the Danes and the Norwegians and Norman invasion being prime examples and these events have all influenced British Last Names. Add this to the differences in the meanings and origins of English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish surnames explain the complexity of the area of the whole subject. These name's, with vastly different meanings and origins, have found their way to many other countries in the World and in particular to America.

Adopted / Invented Last Names - Voluntary Immigrants
Many of our ancestors left their homelands for the chance of better opportunities in different countries. The USA welcomed many such people. However officials were unable to understand the many different languages and so Last name's were registered in a phonetic fashion by using the closet spellings that sounded similar to the original name.

Transferred Last Names
Many of our ancestors, however, had no choice in their lives due to the practice of buying and selling people into slavery. One of the most famous books relating to the forced slavery of an African in America was 'Roots' by Alex Haley. According to research into genealogy compiled by Alex Haley his ancestor was a man called Kunta Kinte who was an African from the Gambian town of Jufferee. A vital element in the story of Kunta Kinte is that he desperately wanted to keep his own name rather than take on the adopted or transferred sur name of his owner.

Scottish Last Names
The Scottish divide into two categories. Those from the highlands and those originating from the lowlands of Scotland. The Scottish Gaelic ones from the highlands were heavily influenced by the Clans. Highlanders gave their allegiance to Clans and adopted the Last Name used by that clan. These included those like Mackintosh, Macgregor, Maclachlan, Macdonnell, Macdonald, Macduff, Buchanan, Drummond, Munro, Campbell, Stewart, Cameron and Ross. Scottish Last Names from the lowlands of Scotland tended to be influenced by their English counterparts. Many Scottish surnames such as Stewart, Cameron and Ross are now commonly used as a First or middle name.

Welsh Last Names
It has been estimated that about nine-tenths of the Welsh population answer to a total of just one hundred name's. Examples of Welsh surnames are Bennett, Beynon, Davis, Ellis, Evans, Griffiths, Jones, Lewis, Llewelyn, Lloyd, Owen, Pritchard, Pugh, Powell, Price, Meredith, Thomas, Trewent, Yorath and Williams. Welsh Last Names make use of patronymics as opposed to fixed surnames. Patronymics are of , relating to, or derived from the name of one's father or a paternal ancestor. The patronymics naming system used the prefixes ab or ap (meaning son of) such as ap Rhys (for son of Rhys) or ab Owen (for son of Owen). This lead to many a Welsh Last Name beginning with the letters B and P. The letter A was dropped from ap and ab. The name ap Howell was thus shortened to Phowell and gradually this then lead to the surname Powell.

  • Bowen from 'ab Owen' son of Owen
  • Price from 'ap Rhys' for son of Rhys
  • Pritchard from 'ap Richard' son of Richard

Irish Last Names
The oldest surname recorded anywhere in Europe can be found in Irish historical records dating back to the year 916. According to Friar Woulfe, an authority on the Irish surname, the first recorded fixed Last name is O'Clery (Ó Cleirigh) detailing the death of Tigherneach Ua Cleirigh, lord of Aidhne in County Galway. Patronymics are of or, relating to, or derived from the name of one's father or a paternal ancestor and this system of naming people played a part in the meanings and origins of Irish Last Names. The term 'Ua', as in the above Irish name Tigherneach Ua Cleirigh, was an early form of "O" meaning grandson (Tigherneach was therefore the grandson of Cleirigh). The prefix "Mac", meaning son of, was also used in Irish surnames, although these were not always hereditary and could change according to a given name. The oldest Irish Names were taken from occupations, tribal ones and from pre-Christian Gods. Unlike English variations, very few Irish Last Names were derived from locations. Irish surnames tended to reflect ancestors or important historical figures. The influence of the Christian church from the 10th century then played a role in the origins and meanings of Irish Last names and these have survived the test of time. Those beginning with 'Kil' or 'Gil' derive from the Irish word 'Giolla', meaning follower or devotee. Those beginning with 'Mul' derive from the Irish word Maol meaning bald (this referred to the tonsure of monks)

Celtic Last Names
Celtic is the language of the Celts. The remains of the old Celtic language are found in the Gaelic, the Erse or Irish, the Manx, and the Welsh and its cognate dialects Cornish and Bas Breton. Erse is a modification of Irish, OE. Irishe.] A name sometimes given to that dialect of the Celtic which is spoken in the Highlands of Scotland called, by the Highlanders, Gaelic. Celtic surnames and their derivatives are detailed under the sections Scottish, Welsh and Irish Last Names. 

Gaelic Last Names
Gaelic is the language of the Gaels and refers to the Celtic Highlanders of Scotland. Gaelic surnames and their derivatives are detailed under the Scottish section. 

American Last Names
The whole subject of American names is extremely complex. The meanings and origins of British surnames have been described and are certainly not without complications. These British Last Names were taken to America and became American surnames. Now add to this the other names that derive from many other countries in the World and we have a vast amount of possible derivations of American Last Names! Many have retained the form that they had in other countries. But the origins of many other American Last Names were changed so that English speakers would find them easier to pronounce and spell. And, of course, Native American Last Names can also be added to increase the complexities of American surnames. American Last Names embody all the surnames of the world. Tracing American Last Names is a difficult task. Please refer to Genealogy for helpful information regarding how to trace ancestors and gain more information into tracing the meanings and origins of American surnames.


Last Names

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