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Origins of Surnames in Europe

Surnames as we know them today were first assumed in Europe from the 11th to the 15th centuries. Surnames are words from languages,so searching surname origins will not tell you where your ancestors lived, just the languages they heard, spoke or were influenced by, so it is more about social history than genealogy research. In the UK/Ireland French Latin and Old English was spoken along with some Gaelic languages, so people could have taken their surname from any one of those languages.

Surnames in England


They were not in use in England before the Norman conquest of 1066, and were first found in the Doomsday Book but it took several hundred years for everyone to acquire a surname. The use of a second or family name, a custom introduced by the Normans (who themselves had adopted it not long before) became in the course of time a mark of gentle blood, and it was deemed a disgrace for a gentleman to have but one single name, that was what ‘common’ or ordinary people had. It was not until the reign of Edward II (1307 - 1327) that the practice became general amongst all people in England.

Surnames were adopted according to fairly general principles and can generally be divided into four classifications; local names are taken from place of origin. (e.g. Hill), occupational names denote the trade or profession of early users (e.g. Miller), nicknames describe mental or physical characteristics, clothes, etc. (e.g. Strong), patronymic names used a father's first name as the last name of his son. (e.g. Duncan, son of John, or Duncan, John's son).

Knowing the origin of your surname doesn't mean that is the origin of your ancestors, to find the origin of your ancestors you need to research them. So surname origin is just a fun thing to know but means nothing at all as far as your own ancestry is concerned

Surnames in Wales

It is fairly well known that there are few Welsh surnames.  "Some thirty-nine surnames include about 95 per cent of the Welsh, wherever they are found".

Those from Christian names common in England - like Jones, Thomas, Davies and Williams.

Surnames which originally contained the prefix "ap" (meaning "son of" in the same way as the Scottish "Mac"). Examples of these are Pritchard (ap Richard) and Bowen (ap Owen with the 'p' hardened to 'b').

Surnames derived from pure Celtic sources - like Lloyd, Morgan, Gwynn, Vaughan, Meredith and Llewelyn.

Surnames from English sources which became well known in parts of Wales.

There are sub-category of descriptive surnames within the Celtic group   (Gwyn is from the Welsh for "white" and means 'fair-haired') and a further place name group (the name Blayney is an English scribe's version of the Welsh town of Blaenau). 

By the 17th Century there had been a decline in the popularity of native Welsh forenames names like Goronwy, Madog and Bleddyn. Some native names virtually disappeared. Names popular in England like John, William, Hugh, Thomas and Richard became commonplace. These became typical Welsh surnames (Jones, Williams, etc) as the patronymic system fell into disuse. 

Surnames in Ireland

 Surnames were not used in Ireland until about the 10th century. Originally, they consisted of a patronymic with the father's name preceded by 'Mac', son, or the grandfather's name preceded by 'O' (originally 'Ui', grandson) for a male. These prefixes could also be followed by the title or occupation of the father or grandfather. The 'O' element was dropped by many Connaught families after the Cromwellian settlement but is retained by the gentry as a mark of distinction. Women originally used 'ingen' or 'daughter of' but this later became 'nighean' and was shortened to 'ni'.

With the spread of Christianity, by names incorporating 'giolla' or 'maol' (follower or devotee) developed. These are generally found in the forms 'Gil-' or 'Mul-' in modern Irish surnames. Others surnames originate amongst the various peoples who settled in Ireland such as the Vikings, Normans (invaded in 1171), Scots (Plantation of Ulster, 1611) and English (Cromwellian Settlement, 1650s).

British rule also led to the anglicising of many names and often the prefixes 'O' and 'Mac' were abandoned. Names were changed to those sounding similar in English or were direct translations of the original Gaelic. 

Surnames in Scotland

From the 14th century on, the Lowlanders were mostly speakers of Scots (an English dialect) and the Highlanders of Gaelic. By the 15th century, by names and nicknames were becoming inherited surnames in the Lowlands, and most people had a fixed family surname by the 16th century. In the Highlands, patronymics continued to be used regularly into the 17th century and sometimes later.

Until the 17th century, a woman always retained her own by name or surname on marriage and it was not common practice for her to adopt her husband's name until the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Modern Scottish law tends to identify a woman by her original name.

Many Scottish clan and family names are preceded by Mac (son of) so were originally patronymics. Many surnames which are not recognised as a separate clan are associated with other clan names.

Scottish Clan names list

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What does my name mean and where did it come from?

There are many websites which give you an idea of where your surname originated. It doesn't mean that that is where your ancestors originated, they may never have even visited the country, let alone were born there, it is just the first time the surname was written in documents.

This a  fun thing to know although it is not a way of research your family history using our surname in isolation as everyone with the same surname is not related to each other.

Click on the link below, search for your surname and see what you find