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Print this page Before surnames 'What is in a name? Very much if the wit of man could find it out. The sources from which names are derived are almost endless: Tracing a family tree in practice involves looking at lists of these names - this is how we recognise our ancestors when we find them.
Before the Norman Conquest of Britain, people did not have hereditary surnames: Many individuals and families have changed their names or adopted an alias at some time in the past When communities were small each person was identifiable by a single name, but as the population increased, it gradually became necessary to identify people further - leading to names such as John the butcher, William the short, Henry from Sutton, Mary of the wood, Roger son of Richard.
Over time many names became corrupted and their original meaning is now not easily seen. Afterthe Norman barons introduced surnames into England, and the practice gradually spread.
Initially, the identifying names were changed or dropped at will, but eventually they began to stick and to get passed on. So trades, nicknames, places of origin, and fathers' names became fixed surnames - names such as Fletcher and Smith, Redhead and Swift, Green and Pickering, Wilkins and Johnson.
By most English families, and those from Lowland Scotland, had adopted the use of hereditary surnames. It was not fashionable, and possibly not sensible either, to bear them during those times, so they fell out of use and were not often passed on as surnames.
However, some names from before the Norman Conquest survived long enough to be inherited directly as surnames, including the Anglo-Saxon Cobbald famous-bold. New surnames continued to be formed long afterand immigrants brought in new ones.
Many Irish and Highland Scottish names derive from Gaelic personal names, as do those of the Welsh, who only began to adopt the English system of surnames following the union of the two countries in This is all too far back to be helpful in researching family origins, although the study of a particular surname may be useful when the investigation points to an area where it appears often.
Many individuals and families have changed their names or adopted an alias at some time in the past.
This could be for legal reasons, or simply on a whim, but points up the fact that although the study of surnames is vital in family history research, it is all too easy to place excessive emphasis on them. Your surname may be derived from a place, such as Lancaster, for example, or an occupation, such as Weaver, but this is not necessarily of relevance to your family history.
You could be in the position of Tony Blair, whose ancestor acquired his name from adoptive or foster parents. Another complication is that sometimes two different names can appear to be the same one, being similar in sound, but different in origin.
The fairly common name of Collins is an example of this. It comes from an Irish clan name, but it is also one of several English surnames derived from the personal name Nicolas.
Thus you can see that only by tracing a particular family line, possibly back to the 14th century or beyond, will you discover which version of a surname is yours. It is more important to be aware that both surnames and forenames are subject to variations in spelling, and not only in the distant past.
Standardised spelling did not really arrive until the 19th century, and even in the present day variations occur, often by accident - how much of your post has your name spelt incorrectly? Top Local names Surnames deriving from a place are probably the oldest and most common.
They can be derived from numerous sources - country, town or estate - or from features in the landscape - hill, wood or stream. Many of these names, and their derivation are obvious, other less so. The names Pickering, Bedford, Berkley and Hampshire might have been given to migrants who left those places during the period of surname formation, or they may have been the names of the landowners where the individuals lived.
Features of the landscape gave rise to many surnames Many people took their name from their farm or hamlet. This was particularly the case in those counties where occupation was scattered, and the Pennines and Devon have more than their share of distinctive names.The history of art mirrors the history of humankind, and the study of works of art and the lives of artists illuminates much about our shared past.
Since written history began, and as far back as oral history reaches, people have had names. It is therefore impossible to do more than guess at how the earliest given names were chosen. Most names appear to have had some sort of original meaning, usually descriptive, rather than being simply a pleasing collection of sounds.
Learn how history shapes culture and science, and how science sheds light on the past. News and articles about history and historical figures. In a world where people will spend hours and hours of time coming up with the perfect name, these people just blindly stumbled into something iconic.
Surname spelling and pronunciation has evolved over many centuries, often making it hard for current generations to determine the origin and evolution of their surnames.
Such family name derivations, resulting from a variety of factors, tend to confound both genealogists and etymologists. Read free articles and learn more about genealogy and family history.