Dictionary definition of Surnames: Surnames Meanings
Surname definition - Middle English, partial translation of Old French 'surnom' - sur + nomme. The word, surname, has been sometimes written sirname, as if it signified sire-name, or the name derived from one's father. A name shared in common to identify the members of a family, as distinguished from each member's given, or first, name.

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Surnames Meanings
Surnames are also called a family name, last name and cognomen. (A cognomen not only means a surname 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 were originally designated occupation, estate, place of residence, or some particular thing or event that related to the person.

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Surnames Meanings: History of Surnames
Going back in time, before the 10th century, takes us to an era where people were usually only referred to by their first names. 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 were slowly introduced. 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 surname is O'Clery (Ó Cleirigh) detailing the death of Tigherneach Ua Cleirigh, lord of Aidhne in County Galway.

Surnames Meanings: The introduction of Surnames
An illustration of why these names 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 surname of Robertson. Alternatively William could also be distinguished by his occupation for example William the baker leading to the surname of Baker or Richard the Gardner leading to the surname of Gardiner.

Surnames Meanings: Spellings of surnames
Our last names date back hundreds of years. Many of our ancestors would have been illiterate! How were names recorded in the past? Many administrators spelled names incorrectly - so many official documents have resulted in different name 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 name 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 account for many derivatives of one particular name.

Surnames Meanings & Origins
Meanings are derived from ideas conveyed by something, such as a word, action, gesture, or situation. Whereas origins of surnames 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 surnames. These are derived from several main categories:

  • Surname meanings or origins that relate to a place
  • Sur-names that are adopted or transferred
  • Surname meanings or origins that describe a profession, trade or status
  • Surname meanings or origins that are connected to Nationalities
  • Surname meanings or origins that are descriptive reflecting a physical or characteristic attribute or have been derived from nicknames

Surnames Meanings: Examples of English Surname origins
Most people are familiar with the legend of Robin Hood and the names used 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

Surnames Meanings: Place Surnames (Toponymic names - a name derived from a place or a region)

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

Surnames Meanings: Nationality of Surnames
Last names are often derivatives of Nationalities such as English, Welsh, Scott or French.

Trades, Professions or status related English Surnames
Last names derived from Trades, Crafts, 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 ones and their often forgotten origins:

A professional Archer
A bailiff
A cart maker
A sculptor
A chaplain
A candle maker
A barrel maker
A dairy worker
An arrow maker
Polished armour and swords
A gardener
Fitted hoops on barrels
A killer of hogs
A doctor
A stone worker
A nail maker
A steward
A thatcher (reed man)
A wood sawer
A wheel maker
A watchman
Surnames Meanings: Descriptive Surnames
Last Names are often derived from physical or characteristic attributes. The origins of many of these descriptive names 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

Surnames Meanings: Surnames with family connections!
The last name often comes 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 names such as William, Phillip, Edward, and Hugh which were changed to create the surnames Williams, Phillips, Edwards, and Hughes. ( From, for example, William's son or Edward's son). Adopting such names 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 ones beginning with Ó or Mac immediately identify significant family ties and the heritage of a specific nationality such as Irish or Scottish. 

Surnames Meanings: The Invaders!
Surnames were changed and foreign names 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 naming traditions. Add this to the differences in the meanings and origins of English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish surnames explain the complexity of the area and subject. These names, with vastly different meanings and origins, have found their way to many other countries in the World and in particular to America.

Surnames Meanings: Invented Surnames - 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 surnames were registered in a phonetic fashion by using the closet spellings that sounded similar to the original name.

Surnames Meanings: Transferred Surnames
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 name of his owner.

Surnames Meanings: Scottish Surnames
Scottish surnames divide into two categories. Scottish surnames from the highlands and Scottish surnames from the lowlands of Scotland. The Scottish Gaelic surnames from the highlands were heavily influenced by the Clans. Highlanders gave their allegiance to Clans and adopted the surname used by that clan. These names included names like Mackintosh, Macgregor, Maclachlan, Macdonnell, Macdonald, Macduff, Buchanan, Drummond, Munro, Campbell, Stewart, Cameron and Ross. Scottish sur-names from the lowlands of Scotland tended to be influenced by English names. Many Scottish names such as Stewart, Cameron and Ross are now commonly used as First or middle names.

Surnames Meanings: Welsh Surnames
Welsh Traditions and Surnames - It has been estimated that about nine-tenths of the Welsh population answer to a total of just one hundred surnames. 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 naming traditions of surnames make use of patronymics as opposed to fixed names. Patronymics are derived from the name of one's father or a paternal ancestor. The Welsh patronymics 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 surnames 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.

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

Surnames Meanings: Irish Surnames
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 Irish surnames, the first recorded fixed surname is O'Clery (Ó Cleirigh) detailing the death of Tigherneach Ua Cleirigh, lord of Aidhne in County Galway. Patronymics are 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 surnames. The term 'Ua', as in the above Irish surname 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, although these names were not always hereditary and could change according to a given name. The oldest Irish surnames were taken from occupations, tribal names and from pre-Christian Gods. Unlike their English counterparts, very few Irish surnames were derived from locations. Irish names 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 surnames and these surnames have survived the test of time. Irish surnames beginning with 'Kil' or 'Gil' derive from the Irish word 'Giolla', meaning follower or devotee. Irish surnames beginning with 'Mul' derive from the Irish word Maol meaning bald (this referred to the tonsure of monks)

Surnames Meanings: Celtic Surnames
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 surnames, Welsh surnames and Irish surnames. 

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

Surnames Meanings: American Surnames
They are are complicated! The meanings and origins of British surnames have been described and are certainly not without complications. These British traditions were taken to America and became American surnames. Now add to this the other name types that derive from many other countries in the World and we have a vast amount of possible derivations of American surnames! Many American types have retained the form that they had in other countries. But the origins of many other American surnames were changed so that English speakers would find them easier to pronounce and spell. And, of course, Native American surname's can also be added to increase the complexities of the American surname. The American examples embody all the surnames of the world. Tracing American surnames 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 the American Surname.


Surnames and the Origins and Meanings of Surnames

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