Collins Dictionary Of Surnames: From Abbey to Mutton, Nabbs to Zouch
Leslie Dunkling

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The Anglo-Saxons do not seem to have duplicated personal names within the same community, nor did they re-use the names of distinguished ancestors. That situation changed when the Danes and Norwegians settled in Britain. They brought with them their own names, which were often similar to those of the Anglo-Saxons, but more importantly, they brought with them their own naming philosophy. As Sir Frank Stenton once expressed it, the Scandinavians believed that ‘the soul of an individual was represented or symbolised by his name, and that the bestowal of a name was a means of calling up the spirit of the man who had borne it into the child to whom it was given.’ Those words could, of course, be used of many modern parents. They name a child after an admired person in the hope that the qualities of that person will somehow be passed on to the new name-bearer.

This belief in name-magic meant that the Scandinavians deliberately re-used the names of famous chiefs or family friends when naming their children. By doing so, they had taken a step towards the modern situation where any number of children born in a particular year are likely to receive the same first name. There is nothing wrong with that system, but it makes a second name essential if an individual Daniel or Laura, say, needs to be identified more precisely.


The Normans shared the same ideas as the Scandinavians about re-using names. When they came to England as conquerors in the 11th century their ideas about naming, as well as the names they used, soon began to be adopted by the natives. The Normans had already begun to use secondary names for purposes of legal identification, especially to establish ownership of land. This useful practice became more common, and Englishmen, especially those of high social class and status, followed suit. Over the next two centuries, what had begun as an aristocratic necessity filtered down through the social classes. By the end of the 14th century, families at all levels of society had what we now call a surname. Thesaur- of ‘surname,’ incidentally, is from Latin super ‘extra,’ though some early writers on the subject insisted that surnames were really ‘sirenames.’

An important point about surnames is that they are passed on from one generation to the next. That was not necessarily the case when secondary names were first used. There was a long period during which someone’s additional name was a by-name, applying only to the person who bore it. John Baker at that time was a baker, but his son might be Robert Johnson. It was only when a man could be called Baker, even though he practised some other trade, or Johnson when his father’s name was William, that Baker and Johnson could truly be called surnames.


There was, then, a fairly lengthy surname-formation period during which surnames slowly evolved, and for purely practical reasons. But the surnames most people bear today have been in existence for some six hundred years. During that time the words that were used to form them in the first place have often changed their meanings, and most names have changed their spelling. For centuries, after all, the names were being written down by semi-literate clerks using their own ideas about how to represent the sound they were hearing. The name-bearers were usually unable to guide them or correct them since most people, at all levels of society, were illiterate. As a result, in their passage through the centuries, individual names may have taken on a wide variety of forms. The lists of variants which accompany many entries in this dictionary make that point.

Not everyone bears a surname that came into existence by the end of the Middle Ages. Many families have understandably adopted a new surname or adapted an existing one, seeing no reason why they should perpetuate the embarrassing nickname of an ancestor. It is easy to see why the names listed in Appendix 1, for instance, have become obsolete. Foundlings were given surnames by parish authorities, often in a whimsical manner, and may only date from the 19th century. Jewish families had their own naming traditions, but were often forced to adopt surnames. It is only by tracing back a family’s history that one can be reasonably sure that the surname a family now bears was that of a medieval ancestor.


Let us retrace our steps for a moment and ask how, once the need for additional secondary names had been recognized, they were formed. The easiest way to understand the process is to think of how people might be given a nickname today. A nickname (originally an ‘eke name,’ or ‘extra name’) may comment on someone’s physical appearance, such as his or her red hair. It may refer to an aspect of behaviour, such as greediness. Our ancestors were fond of commenting on where someone had originally come from, as we do occasionally when we nickname someone Paddy or Jock. They were usually far more specific, however, and described someone as from such and such a village, or as the chap who lived at the foot of the hill. They liked names of the Jones the Bread type, which commented on a man’s trade or profession. They also liked to describe people in terms of their relationships, as Richard’s or Emma’s son.

Writers on surnames traditionally refer to such relationship names as patronymics (derived from the father or male relative) or metronymics (derived from the mother or female relative). Surnames indicating trades and professions are occupational names; those which indicate where someone originally lived are either place names or locative names. Names describing some aspect of appearance or behaviour are lumped together as nicknames. These have become established terms, and they are not necessarily as good as they should be, but the four categories do give a general impression of how surnames were formed.


The simplified summary given above omits at least one vital factor which affects the interpretation of a surname - its language of origin. It may be an Old English name, Old English being a technical description of the English language before the 11th century. Between the 11th and 14th centuries, following the huge impact on it of Norman French, the language is known as Middle English. From the 15th century onwards we refer to Modern English, though as any reader of Shakespeare knows, many words have changed their meanings since his time. Because of the Scandinavian settlers, many of our surnames are based on Old Norse words. Others are French, specifically the dialect of Old French spoken by the Normans. Some names are Dutch, brought to England by Flemish craftsmen. There are also the many names which have a Celtic origin, in Scottish or Irish Gaelic, Welsh or Cornish. In modern Britain the situation is more complicated still, thanks to our multi-national society.

It is obviously essential to know what language we are concerned with when we are seeking the origin of a surname. If you were asked the meaning of the word pain you might say something like ‘bodily discomfort.’ But if the word is French rather than English, then its meaning is ‘bread.’ The situation is further complicated in the case of surname, since we need to ask, what did this word mean, in such and such a language, in the Middle Ages. As it happens, pain in Middle English often meant ‘judicial punishment,’ a meaning which has become obsolete other than in one or two fossilized phrases. For a good example of how the original language of a surname can affect its meaning, see the entry at Belcher.

The fact that surnames began life in different languages helped to confuse still further the spelling situation. If an English-speaking clerk was trying to write down something he was hearing from a speaker of Welsh, for instance, he would be completely baffled by Welsh sounds that do not exist in English. French-speaking clerks had equal difficulty with English names; Scottish and Irish Gaelic created difficulties for those who did not speak those languages. One recalls the stories of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island and being given ‘American’ names by officials who could not understand what was said to them. When asked by other officials what his new name was, one man is said to have replied: Ich hab vergessen, ‘I’ve forgotten.’ He was registered as Ichabod Fergusson. Another version of this story turns Schön vergessen ‘already forgotten’ into Sean Fergusson.


Given these various complications, how then do we go about tracing the original meaning of a surname. A first step is to consult dictionaries such as this. No single dictionary is able to deal with the huge number of names that exist, and one should always consult as many as possible. The list that follows mentions reference works that have acted as sources for the present dictionary work and give an idea of what exists in print.

A Dictionary of Surnames, Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges, Oxford University Press, 1988. This is especially strong on the main European as well as British names. Jewish names are also very well covered thanks to an important contribution from David L. Gold.

The Penguin Dictionary of Surnames, Basil Cottle, Penguin Books, 1967 and later editions. Written in a very condensed style and often assuming that the ordinary reader has the same specialist knowledge as the author. Quirky remarks on many names, and well worth reading.

A Dictionary of British Surnames, P.H.Reaney, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958 and later editions. Still available in many reference libraries, and acknowledged as a work of major importance in the field.

The Origin of English Surnames, P.H.Reaney, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967. A scholarly discursive work, essential to serious students of the subject.

A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, Charles Wareing Bardsley, reprinted from the original 1901 edition by Genealogical Publishing Co, Inc., 1967. The author spent a lifetime studying the subject and did much pioneering work.

English Surnames, their Sources and Significations, Charles Wareing Bardsley, reprinted from the 1873 edition by David and Charles, 1969. Still highly readable.

Romance of the London Directory, Charles Wareing Bardsley, Hand and Heart Publishing, reprinted by Gryphon, 1971. Entertaining.

A History of Surnames of the British Isles, C. L’Estrange Ewen, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1931. An undervalued discursive work, with much to offer.

Homes of Family Names in Great Britain, Henry Brougham Guppy, Harrison & Sons, 1890. Uniquely concerned with the distribution of surnames by county. R.A.McKinley has shown, however, that the names in Norfolk in the 16th century were not necessarily those which still predominated in the 19th century. In other words, Guppy’s counts - treated with reverence by eg Basil Cottle - must be treated with some caution. See also Appendix 2 of this book.

English Ancestral Names, J.R.Dolan, Clarkson N. Potter, 1972. This work focuses on ‘the evolution of the surname from medieval occupations,’ an excellent idea in itself, but a great many names which have other possible explanations have been included.

Family Names J. N. Hook, MacMillan, 1982. Especially concerned with European names in the USA.

New Dictionary of American Family Names, Elsdon C.Smith, Harper and Row, 1956, 1973. This is a collation from the author’s vast personal collection of works on the subject. It suffers from accepting rather too easily the explanations of others, but can be very useful as a starting point.

American Surnames, Elsdon C.Smith, Chilton Book Company, 1969. A discursive work.

Surnames, Ernest Weekley, John Albemarle, 1916. A scholarly discursive work, written in a very condensed style. Any serious student of the subject will need to consult it.

Words and Names, Ernest Weekley, John Murray, 1932.

The Romance of Names, Ernest Weekley, John Murray, 1914.

English Surnames, C. M. Matthews, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966. A discursive work in non technical language.

How You Got Your Name, James Pennethorne Hughes, J. M. Dent 1959. A paperback introduction to the subject.

Is Thy Name Wart? James Pennethorne Hughes, J. M. Dent 1965. A paperback dealing with some ‘odd’ surnames.

An Essay on Family Nomenclature, Mark Antony Lower, John Russell Smith, 1875. Entertaining.

Patronymica Britannica, Mark Antony Lower, John Russell Smith, 1860. A dictionary, still interesting though later scholarship disproved many of the explanations.

British Family Names, Henry Barber, Eliot Stock, 1902. Useful lists of Old Norse and Norman names.

Family Names and their Story, S. Baring-Gold, Seeley & Co, 1910. Discursive.

The Surnames of Scotland, George F. Black, The New York Public Library, 1946. A standard work.

Scottish Surnames, David Dorward, HarperCollins, 1995. An updated work.

Welsh Surnames, T.J. Morgan and Prys Morgan, University of Wales Press, 1985. ‘The primary aim of this work is not to explain the “meanings” of Welsh names,’ says the Preface. A highly technical work, not easy to read.

The Surnames of Ireland, Edward MacLysaght, Irish University Press, 1969. Fairly technical, a great many names left unexplained.

Irish Family Names, Patrick Kelly, republished by Gale Research, 1976.

A Handbook of Cornish Surnames, G.Pawley White, published by the author, 1972. A useful booklet.

Norfolk Surnames in the 16th Century, R.A.McKinley, Leicester University Press, 1969. Of specialist interest.

English Surnames Series, Yorkshire West Riding, George Redmonds, Phillimore, 1973.

Suffolk Surnames, N.I. Bowditch, Trübner & Co, 2nd edition 1861. An immensely long list of surnames from Boston and its vicinity, without explanations but often useful to check whether a surname has survived.
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