Tracking How Last Names Evolve in Society

Did you know there are about 45,000 surnames or last names used in England? Each of these surnames comes with its own special history. Like many others, you might be wondering if last names have always been important. And how did surnames change over time?

If you want to get to know their history, let’s take the time to find out.

We Must Study Credible Sources to Understand the Origin of Last Names

Generally, last names are known to evolve from almost endless sources. These include physical attributes, heraldic charges, trades, counties, and other objects. 

To search for a family tree, we need to study credible lists of specific names. This is the only way to recognize our ancestors, if and when we stumble upon them.

The Origin of English and British Last Names 

Notably, before the Normans conquered Britain, there were no identifiable surnames as we understand them today. Everyone was known by their given name, occupations, or nicknames. Some families and individuals either changed names or took up an alias at some point. 

When communities were smaller, it was easy to identify everyone by a single personal name. Things changed as the population increased; it became necessary to identify people by a second or last name. 

This brought about some of the more “interesting” names. Some of these included William from Sutton, Roger son of Edward, and William the Short. As time passed, many of these names were gradually corrupted. Their original meaning today is unclear.

Norman Invaders Introduced Last Names to England in the 11th Century

Experts think that surnames were initially introduced in England by Norman barons post-1066 AD. Soon, the trend spread to other areas. At first, people could change or drop their surnames as they wished. 

Afterward, the names stuck and could even be passed on to others. In time, people developed permanent surnames like Green and Pickering, Fletcher and Smith or Wilkins, and Johnson. By 1400 most families in England and Scotland were using hereditary surnames.

After the Norman invasion, most personal names of the early Celtics and Saxons disappeared altogether. Yes, names like Oswin, Oswald, and Oslaf quickly vanished with the Norman invasion. Soon after, it was neither sensible nor fashionable to carry these names; they were no longer passed on.

The Union of England and Wales in the 16th Century Promoted Last Names 

After 1400 new surnames were formed while immigrants brought in some. Notably, many Highland Scottish, Welsh, and Irish names originated from Gaelic sources. The integration of these surnames became complete after the union of England and Wales in 1536.

Some families and individuals have taken up an alias or changed their names altogether. While some have done this on a whim, others acted due to legal considerations. This drives home the point that, even though the study of surnames is crucial in genealogical research, there’s a possibility that the importance of these names might be overrated.

Countries, Estates, Towns, and Landscape Features Gave Rise to Last Names

Mot surnames and local names in various countries are derived from specific sources. These include the names of a country (consider the Moore (Morocco), Beamish (Bohemian), and the Lubbock (Lubeck). 

Estates and towns also contributed significantly, like Bristowe (Bristol) and Vyse ( Devizes), as did features of the landscape (hills, streams, or woods). Consider names like Woods, Woodman, Greenwood, Woodruffe, Attwood and Woodcutter.

Some names may have been given to migrants who left certain places in the surname formation period. These include names like Berkley, Bedford, and Pickering. Alternatively, such names reflect the identities of landowners who likely hosted the migrants. Others got their last names from a hamlet or farm. Devon and Pennines are classic examples.

Trees were not left behind in inspiring last names either. Think about Leaf, Root, Bark, Stock, and Curzon — all these refer to a stem. Others include Oakham, Oakley, Ockham, and Noakes, which refer to an oak tree.

Last Names Evolved From Nicknames, Occupational, and Baptismal Names

It’s no wonder that occupations contributed to last names evolving in society as well. Consider surnames like Taylor, Cook, Smith, Wright, and Turner. Others include Brewer, Goldsmith, Potman, Fiddler, Baker, Piper, Hornblower, Bellringer, and Bannister or Bathkeeper.

And we can’t forget about some of the unique nicknames that gradually developed into surnames. These included Nice, Pappilon (meaning inconsistent or dainty), and Foljambe (meaning deformed leg), Smallman, Slowman, Blunt, and Fairsex.

Some last names came from Baptismal names, especially in places like England. Some of these are Williamson or William, Littlejohn, and Brownjohn.


The history of the surnames in various countries in the world makes for an interesting study. In many places, the development of last names derived from countries, towns, hamlets, rivers, trees, nicknames, occupations, and baptismal names. You just need access to some comprehensive and credible sources of genealogy to unlock the mystery.

Have you ever tried to trace your own surname’s history? Rise to the challenge and begin an exciting journey of self-discovery.

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