English Surnames

My principal source for English surnames is A Dictionary of English Surnames by Reaney and Wilson. The meaning of English surnames as contained in the main text of Surnames in Ireland is in most cases based upon that work.

The earliest hereditary surnames are found after the Norman Conquest of England, and are of Norman rather than native English origin. English surnames were effected not only by the Normans and Old English, but also by Scandinavian, Breton, and Celtic influence.

During the thirteenth century surnames began to come into general use, and by the end of the fourteenth century practically all persons bore hereditary surnames.

English surnames may be classified as follows :

Local surnames.

Surnames of relationship.

Surnames of occupation or office.


Within these groups there is considerable overlapping and an accurate classification is not possible. In the case of English surnames it is far less likely that families bearing the same surname are connected to one another.



Local surnames are the largest group and derive from a place name. They indicate where the man held land, or the place from which he had come, or where he actually lived.

In general these surnames derive from English, Scottish or French places and were originally preceded by the preposition de, at, by, in, etc. I consulted English Place-Names by Ekwall, with respect to such matters.


The principal surnames of relationship were patronymic, where the surname was based upon the father�s personal name. However there are also metronymics surnames based upon the mother�s name, which are less common.

Occupation or office

Occupational surnames originally denoted the actual occupation followed by the individual. It is difficult to say when such surnames became hereditary. Among the Normans some offices of state were hereditary and gave rise to hereditary surnames.

However surnames of occupation are common, and many surnames previously regarded as nicknames are really occupational.


Nicknames arise spontaneously from some fortuitous chance according to Reaney. Some nicknames describe physical attributes or peculiarities, others mental and moral characteristics, and sometimes they may be names of animals, being descriptive of appearance or disposition.

Nicknames are common in medieval records, but few have give rise to modern surnames.



Table of hundred most numerous surnames in England and Wales

The table of the hundred most numerous surnames in England and Wales follows. Those surnames dealt with in the main text are highlighted in bold type. This is extracted from the official UK statistics website at: www.statistics.gov.uk/themes/compendia_reference/surnames.asp.


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