What Do Common English Last Names Reveal?

Most of us don’t get to choose our last names. Of course, there are avenues to changing your name legally, such as through marriage or courts, but for the most part, we carry the name passed down from our parents with us throughout our lives. What you may not realize, however, is when you fill out paperwork or introduce yourself at a party and use your surname, you are revealing important information about yourself. Your last name reveals your connection to your family as well as your lineage to your ancestors. Historically, English last names have always carried important information — let’s examine what some of the most common English last names mean.

In medieval times, town populations were small. One estimate suggests that England had between 11-30 people per square mile. With so few people living around one another, it was easy to know your neighbor by their birth name (first name).

As small towns grew larger (around the Norman Conquest in 1066), residents needed a way to group and identify people. In some cases, they used lineage by drawing references to previous generations.

For example, in the south of England and Wales, a man who was the son of John would have the last name “Jones.” This spelling worked like a possessive apostrophe. Looking at other common British last names, the pattern reveals itself: “Johnson” indicates the son of John; “Davidson” does the same.

Last names also came from an individual’s attributes. If a person had a lot of muscle, they might be given the last name “Armstrong.” Someone known for their speed might earn the surname “Swift,” and a more diminutive family might have been called the “Shorts.”

Read Article