A comprehensive guide to British surnames, British last names, British surname meanings and British surname origins
The study of surnames, or family names, can be a useful tool in genealogy as well as being a fascinating topic in its own right. Known
variously as anthroponymy, anthroponomastics or onomastics, surname sudies can give a rich insight into the development of human society.
Surnames or last names?
In England, surnames are also commonly known as last names due to the practice of writing the given names first and then the family name or surname last.
However, this is not necessarily true of other cultures, where the family name may be written first as part of a person's full name.
It is, therefore, not always strictly correct to use the terms "surname" and "last name" interchangeably. Although most British last names
are surnames, this website generally sticks to the term "surname" in order to avoid ambiguity.
Other common synonyms for "surname" include cognomen, patronymic, metronymic and matronymic.
Common surname origins
Surnames were originally introduced into England by the Normans in 1066, and the practice began to spread. Initially, surnames were fluid and
changed from generation to generation, or even as a person changed his job - "John Blacksmith" may have become "John Farrier" as his trade
developed. But by 1400, surnames in England and lowland Scotland had mostly settled down and become hereditary.
What that means is that traditional English and lowland Scottish surnames predominantly reflect society as it was in the
mid to late Middle Ages. Common surnames such as Smith, Wright, Cook, Taylor and Turner are all based on a person's trade or occupation,
and these would have been common in that era. other occupational names include Knight, Thatcher, Squire and Fletcher.
Another common source of surnames are nicknames or descriptive names. Redhead, Black, Fox, Little and Armstrong all fall into
Some of the oldest surnames are those derived from placenames. These can include generic location names such as Heath and Dale, as well
as specific places such as Preston and Stanley.
Other early surnames include those derived from the name of a parent. For example, "David's son" became Davidson or Davids,
and "Peter's son" became Peterson or Peters. A very large number of Welsh surnames follow this pattern, with Jones
(from "John's son") being the most common of all.
Finally, many given names evolved directly into surnames without any change. Where a child was christened with two or more baptismal
names, the last name would be adopted as a surname. So the given names "John Gilbert", for example, would result in later generations
taking Gilbert as a surname. Many of these surnames have outlasted the popularity of the given names from which they came -
Lambert, Bennett, Hyde and Everard are all once-popular forenames that now exist predominantly as surnames.
As well as indigenous British surnames, immigration has also played a large part. Cohen, Patel, Singh and Capaldi have all
been brought to the UK from overseas.
What will you discover about your surname at BritishSurnames.co.uk?