Scottish History and Culture

What's in a Name?

The origin of surnames varies greatly by time and place. In the case of the British Isles, surnames came into vogue in the time period between 1250 AD and 1450 AD. They were generally of four types: 1) Those Click here for larger imagetaking or based on the fathers first name (MacGregor and FitzAllen are examples), 2) those recording the origins of ancestors by locality, 3) names reflecting the occupation or status of the individual and finally 4) surnames that are nicknames describing ones features, temper, morals or habits.

In England, many names had an "s" or "son" added to their father's name and this became the surname. An example would be John the son of William became John William, John Williams or John Williamson. In Ireland and Scotland "Mc" or "Mac" was added to a father's name. This changed the system in place that labeled John the Son of Gregor as John MacGregor. His son instead of being "Walter Mac John" became Walter MacGregor.

In Ireland there was also the addition of "O" to names. This signified that one was the grandson of someone. An O'Brien is the grandson of Brien and then became a permanent surname. The name Fitz appears to be an adaption of a French word fils which means son. So a FitzAllen was again a son of Allen. There was an exception to this rule however as FitzRoy which I believe is French for Son of a King, (Fitz Roi) became the surname of illegitimate offspring of the King.

In other variations, kin is added to a father's name and Tomkin means little Thomas. There are many other types of this name as Bartlett means little Bartholomew, Dickens is the name of a child born to a Dick and means "little dick", and many more variations. Names were corrupted from their original spellings also through illiteracy. Some people did not know how to spell their names so they were written down however the clerk or priest decided to spell them.

Place names as last names are in many cases obvious: Marsh, England, Sidney and others are examples. But in other cases the changes in language have made others not so obvious. Dunlop for example means "Muddy Hill" and Cullen means "back of the river". Most occupational names are also obvious, but again changes in language have changed the meaning of many of these from the original meaning.

The final category of names is those taken from nicknames, many of which are not very flattering. The Kennedy name for instance is said to mean 'Ugly Head' in Gaelic.

As you can see, the evolution of surnames in the British Isles is a very interesting subject. One should not take offense to the original meaning of the name as it was applied in most cases over 600 years ago. This was done to help keep track of individuals, as most towns during the time were getting large enough that to say someone was Walter of Edinburgh only referred to about 50 people. Surnames were a highly successful method, created out of necessity, to separate and identify the individual from others bearing the exact same name.

by BW, February 2000

Thursday, December 26th, 2019

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