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Surname History

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A History of British Surnames

It is thought that personal names originated along with the beginnings of the first spoken language. At the time, the world was a much less populated place than it is today, so single 'given' names were sufficient to be able to recognise and communicate with others without causing confusion. But as time moved on and civilizations grew, it became necessary to tag individuals with additional information to help identify John who lives around the corner from John who lives over the road!

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A surname is added to a given, or first name and enables not only more specific identification of an individual, but also shows family relationships and lines of descent. The use of hereditary surnames dates back to about the start of the second millennium, 1000 AD.

The origins of surnames will generally fall into one of these groups: -
1. One derived from the Sire's given name, e.g. Johnson, Williamson.
2. One applicable to a person's characteristics, e.g. Strong, Little.
3. One taken from a place of residence, e.g. York, Salisbury.
4. One derived from an occupation, e.g. Smith, Tanner.

Where the surname is derived from the Sire's given name, deviations appeared throughout Britain due to the background of the people involved. Hence in England the given name was terminated with "son", the Gaelic community prefixed the given name with "Mac" (e.g. Donald's son would be called MacDonald), the Normans chose to add "Fitz" (e.g. Fitzsimmons), the Irish "O" (e.g. O'Sullivan) and the Welsh added "ap", but this has now been dropped from many names.

By the year 1200 AD, hereditary names had become very popular in England, but it was not until Edward V's reign of 1413 – 1483 that a law was passed to compel the adoption of surnames as a method to track and control his subjects: "They shall take unto them a surname, either of some town, or some colour, as Black or Brown, or some art or science, as Smyth or Carpenter, or some office, as Cooke or Butler."

Surnames adopted by the nobility were usually derived from a place of residence, whether it was an estate, town or village: Winthrop, for instance, means "of the friendly village"; and Endicott, "an end cottage".

Original Sources of Information:

Ron Collins.
The Origins of Surnames.
Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames. 1901. 
Encyclopedia Americana. 1939. 
History of Surnames of the British Isles. 1931. 
Surnames of the United Kingdom. 1912-1918. 
Dictionary of Family Names. 1860. 
Surnames. 1927. 
Irish Names and Surnames. 1923.

Some names seem to defy any particular category due to mispronunciations and misspellings through the passage of time, e.g. Troublefield was originally Tuberville, while Sinnocks and Snooks were Sevenoaks. These corruptions of family names can be attributed to the fact that perhaps the bearer had a preference to alter the spelling, or the scribes only had a pronunciation with which to work at the time.

In it's origin, the family name may seem humble, or matter-of-fact, but the significance of that name today lies not in it's literal interpretation, but in the many things that have happened to it since it was first used. At first it was a simple label to help with the identification of individuals, but as it was passed from a father to his children, his children's children, and their children, it soon developed into a symbol, not of one man, but of a family and all that it's members stood for. It has become the "good name" to be proud of and to protect as one's most treasured possession!

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