How to find the origins of a surname


22 June 2016
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A surname may be on your family tree, so it’s part of your family, but where on earth does it come from? Professional onomasiologist Royston Martin shows you how to find the origins of a surname, even a rare one, using language, history and geography, to help you make sense of the names on your tree.

Let’s start with an extreme example, but one of my favourites – Santus.

Santus has Spanish and Portuguese origins, but not in Lancashire. In Lancashire Santus denotes an ancestor from Hallsenna in the parish of Gosforth, Cumberland. How? It’s all to do with one spelling change being compounded upon another, over the years.

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Before Santus was Santhouse. Northern English surnames ending in ‘-house’ got shortened to ‘-us’; for instance, Lofthouse and Loftus are the same name.

Before Santhouse was Senhouse – the ‘t’ is intrusive, a common mistake among early clerks, (think of Thompson, son of Tom, as another example).

Hallsenna was called Hall Senhouse in 1668 – ‘Hall’ a later addition to the place originally named from Anglo-Saxon seofan, seven, and Old Norse haugr, hill – the place of seven hills or tumuli.

Robert Sevenhowes and John de Senehowes are recorded at that location in 1346 (see Reaney and Wilson’s book, listed below).

Luckily not all surnames are that complicated.

In Britain, we didn’t have surnames before the Norman Conquest, as we lived mostly in small communities, known by just our personal name.

However, society became more complex, and William the Conqueror’s staggeringly thorough survey of the places of England and its population of around 1½ million people (ruled by just 10,000 Normans), meant an extra description of a man was needed so they could be exactly recorded.

By the 1400s in England, Scotland and Ireland most had a hereditary surname; in Wales surnames became fixed as late as the 1800s (David Christmas was baptised on Boxing Day 1802, for instance – his father was Christmas Bedow).

The four origins of surnames

Broadly, surnames have just four origins:

  1. where a man lived
  2. the name of an ancestor (usually the father)
  3. an occupation
  4. a nickname – though they can be deceiving

Gilbert del Hil lived by or on the hill, recorded in 1191 (by Reaney).

However, Rogeris filius Hille, meaning Roger, son of Hille, shows it was also used as a personal name. Scrimshaw sounds like a place, ‘-shaw’ from Anglo Saxon sceag meaning wood, but it is actually a corruption from Old French scremisseur, the skirmisher or fencing master (not always a respectable occupation).

Nicknames can be fun, too. Mr Paddock did not live by the paddock (the word was not in our language until the 1600s) – he had an ancestor who may have had big eyes or warts from Anglo-Saxon padduc meaning frog or toad.

Scotland, Wales and Ireland have far more names from ancestors than England, hence the famous ‘mac’ meaning ‘son of’ in Scotland and Ireland.

  • In Ireland the prefix ‘O’ means ‘descendant of’, often from a very early chieftain
  • in Wales ‘son of’ was ‘mab’, now shortened and sharpened to ‘ap’ so ‘ap Rhys’ became Price.
  • If you have Manx family the ‘C’, ‘K’ and ‘Q’ dominate; Quilliam being a shortened version of mac William.
  • In Cornwall, however, more names come from where someone lived, the prefix ‘tre-’ meaning homestead.

We may think of multi-culturalism as modern but t’was always thus: Celts and Gaels, Normans, French, Flemish, Norse, Bretons and Huguenots to mention just a few of the many cultures that have contributed to the surname heritage of the British Isles.

Enough of surnames generally; how do you find the surname you seek?

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Your surname search strategy

Search & map locations

Although ever-growing collections of baptisms, marriages and burials are coming online all the time (for instance at free, global website for surnames, International Genealogical Index (IGI) microfiche provide better results. Take our old friend Sedgebear, a Devon name from Sedborough, a tiny place near Bideford. The FamilySearch website won’t take you there: click on ‘exact spelling’ and you will find Sedgebear but the site doesn’t connect with Sedborough. Leave exact spelling off and you get all sorts of surnames that are nothing to do with Sedgebear but still don’t connect with Sedborough. The ‘g’ is intrusive and ‘-borough’ has changed to ‘-bear’ because clerks were familiar with this Devon term from Anglo-Saxon bearu meaning ‘grove’.

Online searches are nevertheless worthwhile, and do help to build a map of a surname’s origins. I found records in Devon as expected, and also more in Somerset than I would have imagined, but nothing back to the 1500s. Parish records began in 1538, but a combination of a clergyman who thought more of the communion wine than record-keeping, and the fact that many records have been lost, can thwart aspects of your research.

Make a name variations list

However, if we are talking of a British surname it will always be recorded in the 1500s, although not in the spelling you seek. Sedgebear is a later spelling, so what was it earlier? The website won’t tell you, but the IGI microfiche will. Spend half an hour with every Devon surname beginning ‘S’ and note every one that might, just might, be a variation of Sedgebear. There are places in Devon named Shebbear and Sidbury, but for various reasons (mainly geographical and early spellings) they cannot be the answer. Sedborough is among them, which together with other spellings all lead to north Devon and Sedborough itself.

Discover Domesday

Then we Google Sedborough and find that it’s a tiny place which in the Domesday Book had one smallholder, three slaves, six cattle, 30 sheep and 12 goats. This is recorded at produced by the University of Hull and totally free to view. Also by Googling Sedborough I found Silvester Sedborough, born 1515/1516, who was MP for Bath, son of William Sedborough from north Devon but married an heiress and acquired lands near Porlock, Somerset, near the Devon border; hence why there are Sedgebears in Somerset, and I found their Irish connections. All this by scouring the parish registers and being led by what was found.

I have to quote examples, but the same principles will apply for you. I’m also using examples about names that derive from place names, with good reason, as approximately half of rare surnames originate from place names.

Homing in on place names

Available in many libraries are two excellent books. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names by Eilert Ekwall (first published 1936) and A Genealogical Gazetteer of England, compiled by Frank Smith, but many places are not recorded. So we have the English Place-Name Society (EPNS), established in 1923, at Nottingham University,, which has published over 80 volumes on the survey of English place names, but is still a work in progress. Dr Paul Cavill, lecturer in Early English at Nottingham, tells me many central libraries may have copies, as do most county record offices. Find medieval field names and lost settlements that survived just long enough to generate a surname before their abandonment after the Black Death – EPNS, a wonderful resource.

‘Mowlam’, borne by the popular politician, the late Mo Mowlam, is a good example. IGI microfiche put the surname in Dorset and Willelmo de Mulham of Corfe Castle is listed in a 1327 taxation roll. Only through the EPNS did I find ‘Moulham’, a deserted settlement on Godlingstone Farm outside Swanage. Also our friends from Hull University have the place in the Domesday Book.

How about rare surnames not from places? Nearly always they’re in the books and require imagination to be discovered. Brief examples, Hobcroft and Hobcraft are in Reaney but Hopcroft and Hopcraft aren’t, a simple sharpening of ‘b’ to ‘p’ by clerks. Hiscock and eight other variations are listed but not Hiscoke. Pendred is there but not Pendered. Clerks tended to make the same mistakes without realising, hence ‘b’ and ‘d’ can interchange, and then ‘d’ becomes ‘t’ (being phonetically similar).

Surname research may sound daunting, but if you’re a family historian you’re already used to doing the donkey and detective work, aren’t you? It can take time, too, but imagine – you may be able to stand among some earthworks, the site of a deserted settlement that survived just long enough to generate a surname, close your eyes and feel that this is where your family came from. In medieval, smoky dwellings, the kids making mayhem, your ancestors lived, laughed, loved and died. Surnames are abstract but they belong to people and your family. It will involve language, history and geography but you can learn so much about your earlier family. I hope you may do so and wish you a happy journey. 

Royston Martin has been helping people trace the origins of their surnames for more than two decades.