Family Events

The Origins of Surnames

Old Herts

How To


I do not intend to go into this subject in any depth - as there are many books on the subject. However it is possibly worth giving a simple example of the kind of thing that was happening in early medieval times.

Let us assume that there were two people called John living in a small community called Betlow. Within the community there would need to be some way of distinguishing between them so one John may have been John the Smith, or John Redbeard, or John who lived in the White House, while the other might have been John William's son, or John Little, or John Scrivener (because he was the only person in the village who could write). The first John was one of two smiths which served an adjoining community - and as he was the best he was known there as John Good enough. The second John often went to a town a few miles away where he was known as John of Betlow.

This was OK when everyone was quite clear who you were talking about - but there was considerable grounds for confusion, and eventually one of the epithets would become permanently associated with the individual - and not only that - it got passed on to his children and a surname was born.

There are many reasons to be cautious:

One must be cautious about surname which resemble places. No one would look to an atlas to look for the place where John de Beech lived, or John ate Hill. But in the past many places had descriptive names, possibly in Old English, where the original meaning is unfamiliar. For instance the Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames relates the surname Risden or Risdon to a reference to a Simon de Risedene who lived in Kent in 1198. The dictionary lists three places with this name as far apart as Kent and Devon. However there could be a confusion with places such as Rushden, in Hertfordshire which was recorded as Risendene in the Domesday Book and The Placenames of Hertfordshire gives many variant spellings including Rishden. It also suggests that the name comes from the Old English meaning rushy valley. So the surname might have come from anyone who could have lived in any wet area of the country.
November 2017   More about placenames used as surnames