Find out more about your surname


04 June 2024
Where do surnames come from? Read on below for to find answers to surname origins. These tips are perfect for family historians wishing to learn more about their family names. Knowing about your surname is interesting - and also provides really valuable clues to help with family history research. Read on - it's easy, and free to get started learning about your surname

Where do surnames come from?

How to learn about surname origins

Create a surname map

How does the GB Names map work?

How frequent is my surname?

What if I have a rare surname?

3 very useful websites to find out about surnames

Learn about the different types of surname origin

Where do surnames come from?

Professional family historian Chris Paton writes (in the July 2024 issue of Family Tree, available to buy now):

"In England, surnames became hereditary from the 13th century onwards, whilst in Wales and Scotland it was a little later, from the 15th century onwards, and in Ireland hereditary surnames date back a millennia.

"The origins of surnames can come from many parts. They may describe an occupation, such as those bearing the names Smith, Cook, or MacGillivray (Gaelic: “mac gille breith”, son of the servant of judgment), or they may denote a relationship, such as Price (Welsh: “ap Rhys”, son of Rhys), Wilson (William’s son), or O’ Connolly (Irish: the descendant of Conghal). Some may be derived from locational features, such as Wood or Hill, or from the names of settlements, e.g. Trelawney (Cornish: “tre” and “louni”, farmstead of Louni). Others are simply descriptive, such as Wise, Roy (Gaelic: “ruaidh”, red-haired), or Young. Many are also of overseas origins."

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How to learn about surname origins

"Whenever a new surname crops up in your research, use surname maps to find out where it was most prevalent," advises professional family historian Dr Sophie Kay. This is just one of Sophie Kay's top 5 search tips for more successful family history searching - read her full article in the July issue of Family Tree).

Dr Kay's tips to create a surname map:

  • Head to the GB Names site and type in your chosen surname.
  • The map visualisation shows you the hotspots for that name according to national census data from selected years within 1851-1911, along with modern data sets.
  • Find the GB Names site here

How does the GB Names website work?

It gathers information from historic census records and more recent consumer information and maps the whereabouts of surnames. It aims to explore "the generational and inter-generational residential movements of family groups across Great Britain".

How frequent is my surname? And what if you have a rare surname? 

If there are fewer than 100 instances in a year, then a surname won't appear in the GB Names database. Some surnames evolve into very different forms, or become extinct altogether. If you have a rare surname, investigate the links below to see whether anyone else is researching them. If you do find your surname in the GB Names database be sure to scroll down to 'Frequencies'. Here you can find out how many people have that surname from 1851 to recent years.

3 very useful websites to find out about surnames

Nearly 8,000 surnames are each the subject of a unique one-name study. See whether your surname(s) of interest is among the 7,792 names for which a one-name study is already being undertaken by a member of the Guild of One-Name Studies

Search the Original Record for your surname(s) of interest. This website is "specifically designed for people carrying out one-name studies", writes Chris Paton. Even browsing the listings can provide useful food for thought about surname variants for which to search. Remember that in times past many of our ancestors would have been far less familiar with the written record, and would have had lower levels of literacy. This is just one of the many reasons why you may encounter variations in the spellings of your ancestors' names. Browse the alphabetical surname categories of the Original Record.

Surnames are passed down the family, and so is DNA. This can make the application of DNA, particularly Y-DNA testing, extremely useful for surname studies. Explore the more than 12,000 DNA surname projects at FamilyTreeDNA.

Learn about the different types of surname origin

The origins of surnames are usually categorised into four different types: those based on first names, locations, occupations and nicknames. The acronym is F.L.O.N. Find out more about these types here.