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British Surnames: First-names, Localities, Occupations, Nicknames

by John Kennedy

British surnames became fixed in the period between 1250 and 1450. The broad range of ethnic and linguistic roots for British surnames reflects the history of Britain as an oft-invaded land. These roots include, but are not limited to, Old English, Middle English, Old French, Old Norse, Irish, Gaelic, Celtic, Pictish, Welsh, Gaulish, Germanic, Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

Please note that by "British" we mean only 'inhabitant of the British Isles,' not citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have grouped English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish surnames together mainly because they overlap so often.

Throughout the British Isles, there are only four types of native surnames:

i) (F) Those taking -- or based on -- the first name of the ancestor's father (patronymic).

ii) (L) Those recording localities or places where ancestors originated.

iii) (O) Names reflecting the occupation or status of the ancestor.

iv) (N) Surnames that are nicknames describing the ancestor's face, figure, temper, morals, or habits.

(British surnames in the Origin List wil be tagged with the appropriate icon.)


Surnames based on the Christian name of the father are very common in English-speaking countries. Either the name is obvious (John William) or an "s" might be added, giving names like Williams. In some cases, the ending "son" is added so you get Davidson, Richardson, or Anderson (son of Andrew). Tennyson was the son of Dennis. In Scotland and Ireland "Mac" or "Mc" means "son of" and families which had settled in Ireland soon after the Norman Conquest have a surname beginning with "Fitz" (from the French "fils", for "son"). "Fitz", as used in England often indicates illegitimacy -- so the surname Fitzroy means the illegitimate son of the King (from the French, Fils de Roi). The Irish "O", as in O'Brien, means the grandson of Brien.

The suffix "kin" can be used in surnames as a diminutive - so Tomkin is "Little Thomas", Wilkin is "Little William" and Perkin is "Little Peter". Similarly, Bartlett is Little Bartholomew, Dickens is the son of Little Dick and Philpott is Little Philip. Indeed, a Christian name can be altered over time. The name David, for example, has become: Davey, Davids, Dowell, Davidson, Davidge, Davie, Davies, Davis, Davison, Dayson, Davy, Davys, Daw, Dawe, Dawes, Dawkes, Dawkins, Daws, Dawson, Day, Davitt, Dowson, Dowd, Dowden, and Dowling. The baptismal name of Richard has been modified to give us: Dick, Dickens, Dickenson, Dickson, Dixon, Heacock, Hick, Hickin, Hickman, Hickmot, Hickox, Hicks, Hickson, Higgins, Higginson, Higgs, Higman, Hiscock, Hitch, Hitchcock, Hitchinson, Hitchmough, Hix, Reckett, Ricard, Rich, Richard, Richards, Riche, Richer, Richett, Richney, Richie, Richman, Rick, Rickard, Rickeard, Rickett, Ricketts, Rickman, Ricks, Rickson, Ritchie, Ritchard, and Rix. Welsh surnames can be difficult to trace since, though patronymic, they were not always hereditary. William's son Hugh, for example, was Hugh Williams; Hugh's son Richard was Richard Hughes, and so on.


Surnames representing localities are easy to spot if they come from a specific geographical area or part of land: Marsh, Middleton, Sidney, or Ireland, for example. The evolution of language has made others are less obvious: Cullen ("back of the river"), and Dunlop ("muddy hill").


Occupational surnames are self-explanatory: Barber, Plumber, Baker, etc. Some apparently obvious occupational names aren't what they may seem, however. A Farmer did not work in agriculture but collected taxes, and Banker is not an occupational surname at all, meaning "dweller on a hillside".


Nicknames are perhaps the most fascinating surnames -- but not always very flattering to one's ancestor. Gotobed, for example, stemmed from someone who was very lazy, and Kennedy is Gaelic for "ugly head".

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