Tag Archives: Social Sciences

On the history of surnames

28 Mar

I’m fascinated by people’s names, something you might guess from my earlier post on finding out how posh your surname is.

The study of names is called onomastics – and there are two main branches that really interest lovers of language: personal names (anthroponomastics) and place names (toponomastics).   (I’ll pick the latter up at some point.)

Whenever you use the word ‘onomastics’, you invariably have to qualify it with a pompous sentence like ‘the study of onomastics is fraught with difficulty’.  And the reason for this is that because names are the most personal part of language, they don’t obey the normal trends of language change.

Two things tend to happen with names:

  • people hang on to a name long after that use of language has gone out of fashion
  • people ‘invent’ names, changing language

So an example in the first category is the name ‘Stanley’.  Stanley means ‘stone field’ – as the old word for stone was stan (pronounced with a long ‘a’).

But between around 1300 and 1600, people in the southern part of England started to pronounce their long vowels further forward in the mouth – so stan became stone, ban became bone; hame home; an one, halig holy and so forth.  This process has the delightful and amusing name of the Great Vowel Shift.  (And it’s one of the great mysteries of English.)

But did all the Stanleys shift their vowels further forward in the mouth?  Heck no!  They hung on to their long ‘a’ – and all the Stanleys of the world are still hanging on to it now!

At the other end of the scale is people who make up names that defy the rules of English spelling.  I once saw an edition of the Jerry Springer show, and there was a lady on there by the name of ‘Liberteeee’.  Now, basic rules of English spelling say that you don’t ever use more than two of the same vowel in a row – but Liberteeee’s parents decided they wanted their daughter to be stand out from the crowd!

But, that being said, the study of names is absolutely fascinating and gives a real insight into how people lived in days gone by.

In English, surnames fall into one of four categories:


Some obvious ones are anything ending in –son: Robertson (son of Robert); Williamson; Harrison; or –kin: Hodgkin; Wilkin

You also get names that also allude to a person’s place in the family: Child or Children; Husband; Younger.   There are surnames like ‘Little’, which could have referred to the fact the person was small, but more probably that they were someone’s son or daughter.

Some common Welsh names, such as Jones, Richards or Williams, also show family relationships as the ‘s’ ending indicates ‘son of’ – so Jones is ‘son of John’.

Also from the Welsh are surnames beginning with the letter ‘p’.  The Welsh preposition ‘ap’ means ‘son of’ – so you get names like Pritchard (son of Richard); Pugh (son of Hugh) etc.

We call these patronymic (or matronymic) names.


The most common English surname, Smith, falls into this category – a smith being someone who worked with metal of some kind.  You also get names like Cook, Seaman, Carpenter, Fletcher (someone who made arrows); Miller; Gardener; Farmer; Groom; Baker; Knight; Carter and Turner.  You also get a few based on nicknames for jobs – the classic example being ‘Green’ or ‘Greene’ as people who worked with copper often had stained green hands.  Webb (and its variations) also imply someone was a weaver.

(*I’ll pick up on Baker at a later date as there is a theory, known as nominative determinism, that says if your surname is Baker, you are twelve times more likely to be a baker than if your surname isn’t!)


My own maiden name, Hartley, falls into this category (Hart being a male deer; lea being a field).  I used to go to school with someone called ‘Cowmeadow’ and someone called ‘Stagfield’ – all variations on a theme!

You also get names like Hill, Field, River, Pond, Woods, which describe the natural landscape in which people lived – or more subtle ones like Townsend, which probably tell you where the ancestor’s house was located in the town.  Some also relate to buildings where the person may have worked, or more likely, lived nearby – Castle; Church.

I used to go to college with someone called ‘Bush’ and I do wonder if his ancestor lived next to such an amazing bush that people commented on it to the point where it became a name!

You also get people named after the town or village in which they lived – so surnames like York, Lancaster, or the famous author Jack London.


You get loads of great names in this category.  I like Redhead (perhaps not surprisingly); other gems include Smallbone; Tall; Grey; Goodman; Wise; White; Smart; Russell; Brown; Old. I also dig the surname ‘Beard’ as it implies that someone had such a memorable beard, it became their surname.

(As a side point, my father had had a beard for the majority of his adult life (once red, now white, grown to disguise an awful chin), and it came as a great surprise to my mum when she discovered that the regulars in the local pub referred to her ‘Mrs Beard’ in light of my father’s fine facial hair).

The French have some ‘mean’ names that fall into this category; I knew someone called ‘Borné’ (which means narrow-minded) and I’ve also seen people called Méchant – nasty.

There are also surnames that relate to an experience someone may have had in life.  I’m particularly thinking of surnames like Pilgrim and Palmer, both of which imply the person went on a pilgrimage.

Is there also a fifth category: names that are made up entirely?  I’ve watched Jerry Springer in the past and have seen someone called ‘Liberteee’.  It’s a trend that’s bound to be impacting surnames as well.  So just as Stanley decided he didn’t want to go with the normal linguistic flow and become ‘Stonley’, so Liberteee decided she would disobey the normal rules of language as well!


A quirk of language – how ‘nice’ once meant the same as a swear word!

6 Dec
Extent of indo-european languages

Image via Wikipedia

(Warning – contains a swear word)

I remembered one of the classic wording pairings over the weekend …

Left long enough, any language evolves in very strange ways – and perhaps none more than the pairing of ‘nice’ and (*ahem*) the word ‘shit’, both of which originate from the same source.

The guilty parent is thought to be a proto-Indo-European word ‘*skei’, which is believed to have meant split, cut, slice or cleave.

Now, to be clear, there’s no written or spoken record of any proto Indo-European.  It is a purely hypothesized language, believed to be the common ancestor of the wide group of languages that belong in the Indo-European family.  This family spans most (but not all) languages spoken in Europe and the Indian sub-continent; see here for Wikipedia’s list.

The theory runs that as early people travelled out of Africa, and then slowly split up, moving to different regions, the original language they once shared also evolved, resulting in a whole group of related languages.

It was as early as the 1500s, European travellers noted similarity between some of the languages they heard in India with the languages they heard, or had learned, back home.  But the heyday of this field of study was in the 1800s; even the character Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (published 1871-2) is trying to work on a ‘key to all mythologies’, pointing to this sudden growth of understanding in common roots.

So, if we take the word *skei, we can see that, over time, it has evolved into a number of words, many of which have kept closely to the sense of ‘split, cut, splice or cleave’.

Tools for cutting:

  • Scissors
  • Scythe
  • Shears

The result of cutting:

Schism – a major division, such as a ‘schism in the Church’

Schedule – to separate out one’s time

Scar – the side effect of a cut

Schist – a type of mineral that can be easily split

Ship – some people also argue ‘ship’ comes from this root, as a ship would have originally been carved out of a tree trunk.

Schizophrenia – a mental illness resulting in ‘separate’ personalities.

Ski – ski comes from an Old Norse word meaning to separate one piece of wood from another

And, as mentioned:

Shit – the word makes some sense in this context as the act of defecation involves separating one matter from another.

Interestingly, there are a whole group of words relating to knowledge that derive from this root, arguably because knowledge is, in part, the ability to distinguish and categorise things.

  • Skill
  • Science
  • Omniscience
  • Conscience

The latter three words all derive from the Latin verb ‘scire’, which meant ‘to know’.

The opposite of ‘scire’ was ‘nescire’ – not knowing, and it is from here that the word ‘nice’ was originally thought to derive.  The verb turned into an adjective, nescius, with the meaning of ‘ignorant’.   After the Norman conquest, the word came into English from French as ‘nice’, and while the spelling has remained largely constant, over time, the meaning changed to ‘foolish’ or ‘shy’, and then into ‘moderate’, ‘reserved’ and by the time of Jane Austen in the early 1800s, ‘nice’ meant ‘exacting’ or ‘precise’.

Nice has then evolved to the modern meaning of ‘pleasant’ or ‘agreeable’ – but, interestingly, is almost coming full circle as an insult as we increasingly use it to mean something is banal or bland.

So, take one hypothesized word, *skei, add 6,000 years, and you end up with an interesting muddle!