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

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The Personal Names of the Isle of Man, J.J.Kneen, Oxford University Press, 1937. A scholarly dictionary.

South African Surnames, Eric Rosenthal, Howard Timmins, 1965.

Russian Surnames, B.O.Unbegaun, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1872.

Dictionnaire Etymologique des Noms de Famille et Prénoms de France, Albert Dauzat, Librairie Larousse, 1951.

Deutsches Namenlexikon, Hans Bahlow, Keysersche, 1967.

Unsere Familiennamen, K. Linnartz, Dümmlers, 1958.

Particular surnames that have inspired books in their own right include Smith (The Book of Smith, Elsdon C. Smith, and Is Your Name Smith? by Nicholas Gould). Gould also wrote little booklets about the names Davi(e)s, Williams, Brown(e), Jones and Taylor. James Finlayson long ago wrote a dissertation on the names Buggey and Bugg (see those entries).

The titles mentioned above show only the tip of the onomastic iceberg, and research is constantly in progress. At the Meertens Institute in Amsterdam, for instance, an electronic database of Dutch surnames is being prepared. No doubt computerised research is being undertaken elsewhere. Personal Names and Naming, an annotated bibliography, compiled by Edwin D. Lawson, Greenwood Press, 1987, and More Names and Naming, 1995, will again need to be up-dated in the near future.

It is necessary to say that an awful lot of nonsense about surname origins has appeared in print, and one must not innocently believe everything one reads. To give just one example, Richard Stephen Charnock, in a book entitled Ludus Patronymicus, or the Etymology of Curious Surnames, seriously explains the name Shakespeare as a corruption of Jacques Pierre. This carries the ‘game of names’ a little too far.


If the name that interests you has not already been investigated by a competent researcher, it becomes necessary to do some detective work. It is necessary to trace the male ancestry of the family as far as is possible. The object of the search is to discover as many different spelling forms of the name as possible, so that the sound of the name to those who were recording it can be assessed. Family history research also needs to establish where the family was likely to be living in the 14th century, which in turn indicates the language from which the name is derived.

There are plenty of books available which give advice on how to research family history. There are also professional researchers who can do the job for you, though that can be an expensive option. In most areas there is a Family History Society, and there is a national Genealogical Society. Membership of such societies is well worth while. This kind of historical research soon becomes complex, and helpful advice from others is invaluable.


Some may feel that it is worth making an intelligent guess at the origin of a surname by using deduction. Of the four classes of surnames mentioned above, three have been especially well studied. Names which reflect medieval occupations, for example, were also words which were recorded in contemporary literature. They are dealt with in a historical work such as the monumental Oxford English Dictionary and find their way into most surname dictionaries. Descriptive nicknames were also normal words, and again have been thoroughly investigated. Patronymics of the Johnson type, including Scottish and Irish Mac- names, Welsh Ap- or Ab-, are well covered in existing works.

Surnames which began as place names, the largest class of surnames, are the ones that give most problems. They may have begun as the names of small settlements or hamlets which were totally unknown fifty miles away. The place names themselves had usually themselves been in existence for centuries and had probably changed their original form. Local pronunciation of many place names, as is still the case today, often varied from what the spelling of the name might suggest. An obscure surname, then, is likely to be a transferred place name, which is why a good place to search for it is often the county by county volumes of the English Place-Name Society. These are available in any good reference library. Such a search should only be made after delving into the family history as described above. Clues as to where to begin may be suggested by Appendix 2 of this dictionary, which gives the main locations of many surnames at the end of the 19th century.


Not everyone is concerned with trying to discover the original meaning of a surname. Many American academics now concern themselves very seriously with ‘literary onomastics,’ a branch of literary criticism which examines how and why authors name their characters. Others have been concerned with eponyms, or proper names that have become words (such as lynch, boycott). Less serious in their approach are the many who content themselves with a collection of ‘odd’ names. John Train published his findings in Remarkable Names of Real People and followed it two years later with Even More Remarkable Names of Real People. Don’t Blame the Stork, by Barbara ‘Rainbow’ Fletcher, appeared in 1981. It is crammed with‘oddities.’ A generally light-hearted approach to names is to be found in Names, by Paul Dixon, while a mixture of interesting names information is in Elsdon C. Smith’s Treasury of Name Lore. That might almost serve as a subtitle to What’s In a Name? by Leonard R.N.Ashley, and the Guinness Book of Names, by Leslie Dunkling. The latter author’s Our Secret Names discusses onomancy, beliefs in various types of name-divination, such as Numerology. Signing Off, by Homer, published by Apogee Publishing, 1980, consists entirely of entries such as ‘… We have the facts and details. Research has been completed and approved. Now, let’s go! (Signed) Serge A. Head.’

Perhaps the mention of Signing Off should serve as a hint that it is time to bring this introduction to a close. The surnames themselves are waiting in the wings, anxious to show themselves. I have often been asked, in the last thirty years, why I have made a special study of names of all kinds. I hope that this dictionary will help to answer that question, revealing how fascinating names can be.

Leslie Dunkling

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Aaron, Aarons, Aaronson (Eng) Descendant of a man named Aaron. Traditionally explained as Hebrew ‘mountain of strength,’ but this has no evidence to support it. The biblical personage of this name is brother of Moses and Miriam.

Abadam, Adda, Addaf, Atha, Athawes, Badam, Badda, Baddam, Baddams, Badham, Batha, Bathaw, Bather, Batho, Battams (Welsh) Ab Adam ‘son of Adam.’ The variety of spellings reflects the efforts of English or Norman scribes as they tried to capture the sound of the name as pronounced by a speaker of Welsh. See ADAM.

Abbé (Fre) Occupational name of someone who was a servant in a priest’s household.

Abbett, Abbittsee ABBOT.

Abbey, Abbie (Eng, Scot) Occupational name of a worker in an abbey or someone who lived near an abbey.

Abbis, Abbisonsee ABBS.

Abbot, Abbett, Abbitt, Abbotson, Abbott (Eng) Descendant of Abraham, or servant in an abbot’s household. The frequency of the surname also suggests that it was a nickname for someone who was thought to resemble an abbot in appearance or character.

Abbs, Abbiss, Abbison, Abson (Eng) Son of Abel or Abraham.

Abe (Scot) Descendant of a man named Ebenezer, Hebrew ‘stone of help.’ In the Bible Ebenezer is the name of a place where there are several confrontations between the Israelites and Philistines. The stone referred to in the name is a memorial of Israel’s victory. Ebenezer was used as a given name by the Puritans.

Abel, Abell, Abells, Abelson, Able, Ableson, Abletson, Ablett, Ablin, Ablott (Eng) Descendant of Abel, Hebrew ‘vapour, smoke,’ used to mean ‘vanity.’ In the Bible Abel is the younger son of Adam and Eve whose offering is pleasing to God. His brother Cain is jealous and kills him.

Abercrombie, Abercromby (Scot) From Abercrombie, a parish in Fife, Scotland, so-named because it is at a confluence of a river, the name of which is based on a Gaelic word meaning ‘crooked,’ found again in surnames such as CAMERON and CAMPBELL.

Aberdeen (Scot) Descendant of someone who originally came from the Scottish town of this name. The earliest meaning of the place name was ‘mouth of the river Don.’

Able, Ableson, Abletson, Ablett, Ablin, Ablottsee ABEL.

Ablewhitesee APPLEBY.

Abrach (Scot) Descendant of someone who originally came from Lochaber, Scotland.

Abraham, Abrahams, Abrahamson, Abram, Abrams, Abramson (Eng) Descendant of a man called Abraham, a Hebrew name explained in the Old Testament as ‘father of a multitude,’ though Hebrew scholars believe it means ‘the Father loves.’ Abraham was originally called Abram ‘the Father is on high.’ He was the first of the Jewish patriarchs.

Absalom, Absolem, Absolom, Absolon, Ashplant, Aspenlon, Aspland, Asplen, Asplin, Aspling (Eng) Descendant of a man named Absalom, ‘my Father is peace.’ In the Old Testament he is the third son of David and is famous for his beauty and hair. He is eventually killed by Joab when his hair is caught in an oak tree.

Absonsee ABBS.

Achesonsee ADAM.

Acker, Ackerman, Acreman, Akerman (Eng) Occupational name of a ploughman, worker in a field.

Acket, Acketts, Acklingsee HAKE.

Ackroyd, Ackeroyd, Acroyd, Akeroyd, Akroyd, Aykroyd (Eng) A mainly Yorkshire name, indicating someone who lived in a ‘clearing amongst oak trees’.

Acremansee ACKER.

Acroydsee ACKROYD.

Acton (Eng) Someone who came from one of the several places so-named because it was a ‘settlement near oak trees.’

Adam, Acheson, Adames, Adams, Adamson, Adcock, Addey, Addis, Addison, Adds, Addy, Ade, Ades, Adie, Adkin, Aiken, Aitchison, Aitken, Atkin, Atkins, Atkinson (Eng, Scot) Descendant of a man named Adam, from a Hebrew word meaning ‘of red earth.’ The biblical Adam dies at the age of 940. See DUCK.

Adda, Addafsee ABADAM.

Addyman (Eng) Occupational name of Adam’s servant.

Adeanesee DEAN.

Afel (Welsh) Probably a form of ABEL.
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