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Beginning Your Family History

Part Fifteen: What’s in a Name?

User Avatar Penelope Lovesy 18/09/2020 13:28:30

Is it possible to discover the history behind your own surname? Today in Britain and Ireland there are 45,000 surnames. However, until the end of the fourteenth century most people in England were only known by a first name or nickname - they didn’t have a hereditary surname. This slowly began to change after the Norman conquest.  “After 1066, the Norman barons introduced surnames into England, and the practice gradually spread.” (BBC Family History pages)

It is possible to generalise that there are four main origins of surname;

  • Occupations (such as “Smith,” for a blacksmith)
  • Nicknames or physical characteristics (such as “Short”)
  • Places or landmarks (such as “Hill”)
  • Patronymics, or father’s name (such as “Johnson,” son of John)

(https://www.familytreemagazine.com/premium/all-about-surnames/ )

This article from the BBC outlines these four categories: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/get_started/surnames_01.shtml

It also warns us to be wary as standardised spelling did not arrive until the 1800s and even then, many people were illiterate. This means that often variations of surnames can occur. 

The Society of Genealogists also have a very comprehensive guide to surnames here: http://www.sog.org.uk/learn/education-sub-page-for-testing-navigation/guide-nine/   They detail a potential pitfall; “because it is often impossible to know the original form and, therefore, the etymology or meaning of the surname of a particular family until one has traced that family's history and seen how its surname has changed over time the various available dictionaries of surnames should be used with the greatest care.”

Although there are drawbacks to researching your surname before tracing all your family history, there are several websites which can give you an idea about the meaning of your surname and its distribution, both today and historically.

https://www.your-family-history.com/ Your Family History allows you to search for a surname (the list is not exhaustive) and results comprise of a meaning, distribution around the UK according to census records and other statistics such as the top professions for people with that surname. I had a go using the popular Poole surname - Skinner.

The results included; “Skinner meaning - occupational name for someone who made a living with animal skins in the production of fur garments.

A derivative of middle English skin 'hide','pelt'. Of all the great medieval guilds the company of 'skinners' was among those of great honour.”

I also found out that over all the available census years (1841-1911) there were only around 100 and never more than 200 Skinners in Dorset. A Skinner was most likely to be living on their own means or be a general labourer, so spanning all classes.

This is an interesting tool for beginners. Have a go and see what you can discover about your surname.

The Internet Surname Database https://www.surnamedb.com/ is the culmination of years of research, mostly undertaken before the age of the internet. A search of the database can typically result in;

“  The current surname and its immediate variant spellings,

  The country or countries of origin, with the approximate period of history from when the "word" might have first been used descriptively, before becoming a surname,

  The original meaning and translation of the surname, its descriptive group, i.e. locational, patronymic, occupational etc.

  Examples of interesting recordings which appear in pipe rolls, deeds, and wills, date back to early medieval times 11th or 12th century, and/or from the earliest church register recordings from the 15th century onwards,

  The earliest proven recording that we have been able to find of the surname, and the name and reign dates of the monarch on the appropriate throne at the time.”

As an example, I tried searching for my nana’s maiden surname - Naylor. These were the results:

“Last name: Naylor

SDB Popularity ranking: 1619

Recorded as Nail, Naile, Nailer, Nayler, and Naylor, this is an English occupational surname. It describes a nail maker, from a period in history in the 13th century when this was a separate guild of specialised makers. The derivation is from the Olde English pre 7th century word "naegel", with or without the addition of the agent suffix "-er", meaning a "worker in". This is one of that interesting group of early surnames which indicate the particularly important and skilled areas of medieval employment. Examples of these include Mason, Fletcher, Shepherd, Smith, Miller, and Fuller, but there were several hundred recognised trades, most of which were formed into trade guilds. The medieval nail-maker was a vital member of the ship building and construction trade, the majority of houses being built of wood. Job-descriptive surnames originally denoted the actual occupation of the namebearer, and later became hereditary. Early examples of the surname include: William Nayl of Berkshire in 1255, James le Nayler in the Hundred Rolls of Yorkshire in 1273, and John le Naylere of Northumberland in 1292. Thomas Naylor was an early emigrant to the American colonies, being recorded as resident in Virginia in 1622. The first recorded spelling of the family name in any form is believed to be that of Stephen le Nailere. This was dated 1231, in the "Calendar of the Patent Rolls", in the city of London, during the reign of King Henry 111rd of England, 1216 - 1272. Throughout the centuries, surnames in every country have continued to "develop" often leading to astonishing variants of the original spelling. “

A wealth of information, but again remember, that without tracing your family tree back as far as you can, you can’t be sure if the name began as Naylor or a variant or something different.

The website named https://named.publicprofiler.org/ maps places in the UK where surnames have an historically unusually high local population. Try it and find out where your surname is unusually popular.

The Guild of One Name Studies is the place to go if you find yourself motivated and decide to focus your research on one surname;

“A One-Name Study (ONS) is a project researching all occurrences of a surname, as opposed to a particular pedigree (ancestors of one person) or descendancy (descendants of one person or couple).

A one-name study may concentrate on aspects such as geographical distribution of the name and the changes in that distribution over the centuries, or it may attempt to reconstruct the genealogy of the lines bearing the surname. A frequent aspiration is to identify a single place of origin for the name, especially if the name appears to derive from a place name. However, for many names – for example those indicating an occupation like Butcher, or a patronymic-type surname such as Peterson – there will not be a single origin. Some one-namers also run an associated DNA surname project to assist with the analysis of origins.

The objective of a one-name study is not just the collection of data; collection is a means to an end. A one-name study aims to research the genealogy and family history of all persons with a given surname (and its variants). As part of this, it attempts to ascertain such things as,

  • The origin of the name or early references
  • The name’s meaning: is it patronymic, topographical, toponymic, occupational, etc? Or a mix of these?
  • Relative frequency
  • Distribution in geography and time
  • Patterns of immigration and emigration
  • Name variants and “deviants””

If this sounds like something you want to pursue visit their website; https://one-name.org/

The website also has useful material and indexes that are publicly available for your own research.

This has been a brief introduction and whistle-stop tour through some places to learn more about your surname. I found it fascinating to look up various names from my own family tree and I hope you do too.

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