Article - What's In a Name? Your Link to the Past
Before surnames 'What is in a name? Very much if the wit of man could
find it out.' Whoever penned this well known saying undoubtedly had it
right - in England alone there are around 45,000 different surnames -
each with a history behind it.
The sources from which names are derived are almost endless: nicknames,
physical attributes, counties, trades, heraldic charges, and almost every
object known to mankind. Tracing a family tree in practice involves looking
at lists of these names - this is how we recognise our ancestors when
we find them.
Before the Norman Conquest of Britain, people did not have hereditary
surnames: they were known just by a personal name or nickname.
'Many individuals and families have changed their names or adopted an
alias at some time in the past'
When communities were small each person was identifiable by a single
name, but as the population increased, it gradually became necessary to
identify people further - leading to names such as John the butcher, William
the short, Henry from Sutton, Mary of the wood, Roger son of Richard.
Over time many names became corrupted and their original meaning is now
not easily seen.
After 1066, the Norman barons introduced surnames into England, and the
practice gradually spread. Initially, the identifying names were changed
or dropped at will, but eventually they began to stick and to get passed
on. So trades, nicknames, places of origin, and fathers' names became
fixed surnames - names such as Fletcher and Smith, Redhead and Swift,
Green and Pickering, Wilkins and Johnson. By 1400 most English families,
and those from Lowland Scotland, had adopted the use of hereditary surnames.
Most Saxon and early Celtic personal names - names such Oslaf, Oslac,
Oswald, Oswin and Osway ('Os' meaning God) - disappeared quite quickly
after the Norman invasion. It was not fashionable, and possibly not sensible
either, to bear them during those times, so they fell out of use and were
not often passed on as surnames. However, some names from before the Norman
Conquest survived long enough to be inherited directly as surnames, including
the Anglo-Saxon Cobbald (famous-bold).