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.
A Brief History of Last Names
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.”
The common last name of “Smith” indicates a yet another trend — naming people according to their profession. With many types of smithing, including silversmithing and blacksmithing, the ranks of Smiths were large.
Here are a few more occupational last names:
Wainwright: This last name comes from the Middle English word “waynwright,” which referred to someone who makes carts for a living.
Carter: If a wainwright made the cart, a carter hauled goods with the cart.
Coward: This doesn’t refer to someone’s character. Instead, it hinted at the occupation of cow herding.
Taylor: While the spelling has changed, this last name referred to a tailor, or someone who mends clothing for a living.
Baxter: While many last names are drawn from male professions, this one was for women. “Baker” indicated a man who made bread, but a female baker was referred to as a “baxter.”
Brewster: This person, usually in northern England, made beer.
Marshall: In addition to denoting someone’s role in court, "marshall" also described someone who took care of horses.
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