English surnames explained: The seven types of last names you should know
4-5 minute read
By Daisy Goddard
Ever wondered where our last names come from? Our surnames play a key role in genealogical research. They can help to uncover exciting details about your relatives.
As every genealogist knows, we’re all the product of our family’s history. But genetics aren’t the only thing that we pass down the generations. Used to identify our familial bonds, surnames link us to even our most distant ancestors.
Where do our surnames come from?
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to our surnames. Naming has been done differently throughout history, and across different cultures.
In England, surnames became widely used after the Norman Conquest in 1066. At this point, rapid population growth made it necessary to identify people in more detail. People added a last name to their existing given name. This was passed down the generations as a family name.
Over time, all manner of functional descriptions evolved into the surnames that we go by today.
What are the different types of English surnames?
There are an estimated 45,000 different English surnames. They can teach us valuable information about our family’s roots, from historical occupations to where our ancestors hailed from.
Patronymic and matronymic names
Occupational surnames used people’s jobs to identify them. These are of particular interest to family history researchers, as they can help to reveal how our ancestors made a living.
It’s important to remember the historical context. People worked very different kinds of jobs 100 years ago to the ones that we’re familiar with today.
While you may not think of Cartwright as an occupational name, for example, this Medieval name describes someone who made carts in years gone by.
Our early ancestors also used place names to identify themselves and others. This is why many people today share their surnames with towns, counties or other areas in Britain.
Like place names, features of the natural landscape were also used as last names. This surname type is popular. It includes names that you may not have realised were related to geography.
If your ancestors owned land, this could be reflected in the surnames on your family tree. It was common for landowners to take the name of their property or estate.
The royal family are a good example of an estate surname.
If your ancestors worked on someone else’s land, their surname may reflect this. Some of our names denote patronage – that is, support or employment provided by one person to another.
The Irish surname Kilpatrick, for example, means a follower of Patrick.
The history behind a family name
Although we can categorise surnames, they remain a bit of a mystery. Because they’ve evolved over a long period, it’s often hard to know where they come from exactly. A lot of common surnames have multiple potential origins.
Take the surname Perry, for example. It may have come from two places. Firstly, it may come from the Middle English work for pear-tree, which is ‘pirie’. It could be a geographical name, referring to someone who worked with or lived near pear trees.
On the other hand, it may be a patronymic surname. It could be linked to the French male name ‘Pierre’ and its variants.
What surname discoveries can you make?
From an occupational name to a personal nickname, mysteries can be uncovered when we understand where our surnames come from.
Using our handy surname search, it’s easy to discover more about the last names of your relatives. You can also browse Britain’s most popular surnames, or randomise to discover a totally new name.
If you've made a discovery, big or small, we want to hear about it. You can now use this form to share your story with us directly.