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Understanding customs used in English names can help you identify your ancestors in records. Learn to recognize name variations and see clues in names.

Online Tools[edit | edit source]

Surnames[edit | edit source]

Patronymic Surnames[edit | edit source]

A patronymic surname is a surname originated from the given name of the father.

Patronymic names changed with each generation. A patronymic surname is derived from the personal name (occasionally the occupation) of a person’s father, or sometimes mother or other relative. A typical English patronymic is Johnson (John’s son) which can be shortened with the genitive ‘s’ to Johns. The -son form was more common in northern England. The -s form was preferred in south and central England, hence the proximity of Wales to these areas influenced the type of many Welsh patronymics. For a more detailed look at English patronymics, see England Patronymic Surnames (National Institute).


Surname Spelling Variations[edit | edit source]

For centuries, there were no standardized spellings. People spelled phonetically. Think of all the different British accents. Think of the varied levels of spelling skills people have, Then, realize that your ancestors names can show up very differently in records than how they are spelled today. This series of articles documents spelling variations commonly found for different surnames:


Learn to predict spelling variations by reading England Research Strategies for Name Spelling Variants (National Institute).

Surname Spelling Variations by Dialect[edit | edit source]

Sometimes surname spelling variations are based on dialect (a particular form of a language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group) differences.

Many traditional Cornish names begin with a prefix, as noted in the popular saying, "By Tre, Pol, and Pen, Ye shall know Cornishmen." There are a number of other prefixes that are commonly part of Cornish names, such as Bos-, Bod-, Car-, Chy-, Hal-, Lan-, Men-, Nan-, and Ros-. These are usually attached to other words of Cornish origin to form a name, such as Trelawney, Tremayne, Trebilcock, Polglaze, Polscoe, Pengelly, Penrose, Carkeek, Chynoweth, Menheniot, Roskelly, and similar combinations that immediately identify a name as Cornish. Other names are simpler, but still distinctly Cornish, such as Bone, Opie, Keast, Philp, Penno, and Olver. Due to the proximity to England with migration in and out, most common English surnames will also be found in Cornwall.

Surnames Historical Development[edit | edit source]

  • Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as John.
  • As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. John became John the smith, John the son of Matthew, John the short, or John from Leeds.
  • At first surnames applied only to one person, not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names became hereditary and were passed on from generation to generation.
  • Surnames developed from several sources. For example:
    • Occupational (based on a person’s trade, such as Carter or Smith)
    • Geographical (based on a person’s residence, such as Drayton or Debenham)
    • Patronymic (based on a person’s father’s name, such as Jones, son of John)
    • Descriptive or nickname (such as Joy or Child)
  • The nobility and wealthy land owners were the first to begin using surnames.
  • Merchants and townspeople then adopted the custom, as did the rural population. This process took two or three centuries.

Given Names[edit | edit source]

  • When they were christened, children usually received one or two given names. Some were named after parents or other relatives.
  • Family researchers might run across Biblical names, such as Zacharias or Benjamin, or names for religious principles, like Faith, Hope, and Charity. Such names were not common in England and may suggest that the family was particularly committed to religion and may have been non-conformist dissenters (belonged to a church other than the state Church of England, or Anglican). This can be a significant hint to the family researcher.
  • Since many children died in the 17th and 18th centuries, parents had no problem with re-using the name of a dead child for a subsequent birth. A family might, therefore, have several John or Jane children. Occasionally, the same name was given to more than one living child, but this was rare. The re-use of a name almost always meant that the first named child has died.
  • In working class families pre-1900, the use of a surname as a second given name almost always indicates illegitimacy. It was a convenient way to indicate the child’s parentage by giving the father’s surname as a middle name to a child who would bear its mother’s surname.

Naming Pattern[edit | edit source]

The most common convention was for the parents to choose names that honored people. Sometimes the people so honored were powerful people, such as a local, wealthy landowner. Sometimes the names honored royalty. So there were many Henrys named after King Henry and many Georges named after King George. The most common persons to honor, however, were the gender appropriate grandparents and parents. There was even a convention in the order in which the ancestors were honored – probably to avoid insulting anyone. Although it was far from universally used, the usual British naming convention was as follows:

• The first son was named after the paternal grandfather
• The second son was named after the maternal grandfather
• The third son was named after the father
• The fourth son was named after the oldest paternal uncle
• The fifth was named after the second oldest paternal uncle or the oldest maternal uncle

• The first daughter was named after the maternal grandmother
• The second daughter was named after the paternal grandmother
• The third daughter was named after the mother
• The fourth daughter was named after the oldest maternal aunt
• The fifth was named after the second oldest maternal aunt or the oldest paternal aunt

If there was duplication (for example, the paternal grandfather and the father had the same name), then the family moved to the next position on the list.

For Further Reading[edit | edit source]

  • England Given Name Considerations (National Institute)
  • Behind the Name The etymology and history of first names
  • Scott Smith-Bannister, Names and Naming Patterns in England, 1538-1700. (Oxford Historical Monographs) New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. At various libraries (WorldCat)
  • Bardsley, Charles W. A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames. Reprint of 1901 edition. Baltimore, Maryland.)Genealogical Publishing Company, 1980. Digital version at Digital at Internet Archive; (Family History Library book 942 D4b.) This book mentions early dates and places where particular surnames are common. At various libraries (WorldCat)
  • Guppy, Henry Brougham. Homes of Family Names in Great Britain. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing, 1968. (Family History Library book 942 D4g 1968.) This book discusses the geographic origins and meanings of certain surnames. At various libraries (WorldCat)
  • Hanks, Patrick, and Flavia Hodges. A Dictionary of Surnames. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Digital version at Ancestry - free; (Family History Library book 929.42 H194d. BYU FHL book CS 2385 .H27 1988.) The book contains entries for most major surnames of European origin and some rare surnames. At various libraries (WorldCat)
  • Lasker, G. W. and C. G. N. Mascie-Taylor. Atlas of British Surnames: With 154 Maps of Selected Surnames. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1990. (Family History Library book 942 D4Lg.) This book charts with maps the density of surnames in England. At various libraries (WorldCat)
  • Lloyd, Lewis C.; Charles Travis Clay and David C. Douglas, eds. The Origins of Some Anglo-Norman Families. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing, 1975. (Family History Library book 942 D4n.) This book studies the origins of prominent Anglo-Norman families. At various libraries (WorldCat)
  • Rogers, Colin D. The Surname Detective: Investigating Surname Distribution in England, 1086-Present Day. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1995. (Family History Library book 942 D4rs.) This book looks at the distribution of surnames throughout England. At various libraries (WorldCat)
  • Titford, John . Searching for Surnames: A Practical Guide to their Meanings and Origins. Newbury, England: Countryside Books, 2002. (Family History Library book 942 D4tj.) This book discusses the meaning and origins of early surnames. At various libraries (WorldCat)
  • Withycombe, E.G. The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names. Third Revised Edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1950. (Family History Library book 942 D4w 1950. BYU FHL book CS 2375 .G7 W5 1977.) At various libraries (WorldCat)
  • A select list of Latin given names with the English equivalent are listed in Volume three of David E. Gardner’s, and Frank Smith’s Genealogical Research in England and Wales. Three Volumes. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft Publishers, 1956–64. (Family History Library book 929.142 G172g.) At various libraries (WorldCat)

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References[edit | edit source]