21 July 2021
Find out the origins of your surname with this guide to exploring surname meaning.
If you're one of the countless people who've wondered about the origins of their name, read on to find out how to explore the history of your surname.
How to explore the history of your surname
A great starting point if you'd like to find out more about a particular surname is to tap into existing research. Many of the UK's hundreds of family history societies have published studies that relate to a particular surname or family. You can find listings of societies around the country on the Family History Federation website.
If your surname of interest has origins in a particular area, try the society that covers that area first. Family History Federation has a surname interests hub page where you can see a summary of all surname interest projects logged with the federation.
Different types of surname
There are four main types of surname and finding out which group yours belongs to will give you valuable clues on how to find out more. The categories are patronymic, place name related, occupation related and descriptive.
Patronymic surnames hark back to a time from before surnames were formalised. For example, the son of a man named Jack in a village would be known as Jackson, Fitzgerald was 'son of Gerald' and so on.
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Place names surnames not only give you clues about possible geographic locations for early holders of the name, but can also indicate where a name has migrated from another country.
Occupation surnames will be familiar to many of us and can be found in most countries around the world. UK examples can include names such as Smith, Baker and Beadle.
Descriptive surnames give you a tantalising glimpse into the possible physical appearance of some of the earliest holders of the name. For example, Lofthouse or Long can indicate a tall person, although do bear in mind that such surnames were sometimes adopted in an ironic way from a nickname, where the name Long was affectionally given to a person of short stature.
One-name studies resources and societies
One of the best ways to progress your research is to join one or more surname societies. These are listed below, under 'surname resources' and provide articles, events, publications, opportunities to contact others with the same interests, and access to expert support.
Surname research is definitely a project that can benefit from interaction with others researching the same name. As well as linking up with those involved in one-name studies (see above) you can also find others with the same interest by:
- Googling your surname with the words 'family history' and/or 'research' -and do consider alternative spellings of the name
- Asking a family history society that covers where the name is most prevalent whether any of its members are researching the name. Find a list of societies at Family History Federation
- Linking up with DNA matches by filtering your results to show those with the same surname on their family tree
Surname projects and DNA
These genetic genealogy projects use DNA tests to trace male lineages, with Y-chromosome markers indicating whether or not two individuals are related. ISOGG Wiki provides a great overview and lists some of the biggest such projects.
Many of these projects are hosted at Family Tree DNA, who are currently the only test provider to provide project management tools. This link takes you through to over 11,000 such projects. You can also start your own project here if your name isn't already under investigation.
Online surname resources
The Guild of One-Name Studies supports worldwide surname research via resources, education and community - all intended to help members research a particular name. It currently has more than 8,000 surname studies registered and has more than 2,000 members around the world.
The Surname Society is a worldwide group of experienced genealogists. The Society is entirely online and focuses on single surname studies. Membership of the society is not restricted to individuals and is open to societies, associations and other groups researching surnames anywhere in the world.
These maps don't exist for every surname, but where they can be found, can be a great visual guide to seeing at a glance where your name of interest is clustered, thus potentially helping you to trace your family's journey over the centuries.
Often, a particular surname remains clustered in its place of origin, even if most of the current name holders have moved away - another potential clue.
Forebears is hard to beat - with over 31 million surnames in its database. Simply type in your name of interest and then enjoy exploring the stats. Warning - the site is very addictive, be prepared to devote several hours to exploring!
Family Tree blogs
Find out more with our selection of hand-picked Family Tree blogs:
- How to research a surname
- How to record your surname findings on Free BMD
- 8 rare British surnames which could soon be extinct
- Does your surname indicate a castle-dwelling ancestor?
- Top tips for using surnames in family history research
Resources to help you research your surname
Oxford English Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland covers more than 45,000 names, including immigrant names. The book has a £400 cover price but can often be found in the reference section of larger libraries and some libraries also offer their members online access, such as Manchester.
The Surnames Handbook by Debbie Kennett is a practical guide to all aspects of surname research, including a guide to using traditional paper-based research in conjunction with DNA findings.
What's in your surname: the fascinating story of British surnames by William Lewis tells the story of our surnames and reveals that their meanings are the key features to understanding their origins.
A selection of helpful websites, many of which have suggestions for further reading and research.
- FamilySearch's English Surnames: their origins and meanings
- What's in a surname? The finding of a major research project to create the largest and most detailed database of UK surnames
- How to search for Scottish surnames at ScotlandsPeople
- What's in a surname? UK National Archives blog
Archives and libraries
Society of Genealogists
The Society holds both printed and published family histories, as well as unpublished family manuscripts. This guide explains how to search the Society's collections for a particular surname and also includes helpful information on surname origins and surname distribution.
Local and family history libraries
Many UK local history and family history libraries hold collections relating to surnames that are prevalent in the area that they cover. Their online and print catalogues may also have links to published and unpublished surname histories that have been deposited with the institution in question.
One such example is Derbyshire County Council libraries, who have a family history surname search created by Chesterfield & District Family History Society.
Do you have surname research tips to share? If so, please e-mail Rachel Bellerby and we'll add a selection of your responses to this guide.