Forenames (Given or Christian names)

  Until the eleventh century AD, people were known simply by a given name.  The Anglo-Saxons in Britain - Athelstan, Egbert, Ethelred.  Three Anglo-Saxon names, Edith, Edward and Edmund survive to the present day.  The Danes - Grimwald, Knut, Oswald; Frida, Ingirid, Sigrid.  The Romans in Britain would have names - Claudius, Gaius, Marcus; Flavia, Lucilla, Octavia.   By 1042, bynames had begun to appear such as the king himself, Edward the Confessor.

  After the Norman conquest most Old English and Norse forenames disappeared.  Within the Christian faith, the forename was the name given at the christening (baptism) ceremony and it became known as the 'Christian name'.  Norman nobility had Germanic names - Geoffrey, Henry, Ralph, Richard, Roger, Odo, Walter, William - and Celtic names from Brittany - Alan and Brian.  The Normans also introduced the idea of female names formed from male names - Patrick/Patricia, Paul/Paula.  Between 1150 and 1300, the number of first names began to decline for some reason with over half of the male population having one of five forenames - Henry, John, Richard, Robert and William - by the end of the fourteenth century.  Certain female names had also become very common by the fourteenth century - Alice, Anne, Elizabeth, Jane and Rose in particular.  Scribes began to use bynames such as Richard, son of John.  As the idea became accepted, the use of hereditary surnames began, starting with the nobility and moving slowly downwards in the social order and outwards from London.  In the north, many countrymen were without surnames at the end of the sixteenth century.

  In Scotland, early names were from the Gaelic - Donald comes from the Gaelic name 'Domhnall' which means 'ruler of the world', composed of the Old Celtic elements dumno 'world' and val 'rule', Douglas comes from the river originally called the 'dark river', Dubhghlas, in Gaelic.

  In Wales, early names were often simply descriptive.  For women - Angharad = ‘well loved’, Bronwen = ‘fair-bosomed’, Carys = ‘love’, Ceri = nickname of Ceridwen, Celtic goddess of poetry, Dilys = ‘sincere’, Gwen = feminine form of gwyn meaning ‘white, fair, blessed’, Myfanwy = ‘my fine one’, Sian = ‘gift of God’, Winnifred = ‘white wave’, Ysbail = ‘spoiled’  For men - Aedan = ‘fiery’, Aled = ‘offspring’, Brian (legend name of a son of Turenn), Bryn = ‘from the hill’, Dai = from Old Celtic dei meaning ‘to shine’, Glyn = ‘valley’, Howell =‘eminent, remarkable’ and Ronan (from Ireland) = ‘little seal/little oath’.   Many male names are from ancient legend.

  During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, New Testament biblical names came into fashion -Andrew, John, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Peter, Simon and Thomas; Agnes, Anne, Catherine, Elizabeth, Joan (Jane), Lydia, Mary and Mary Ann (becoming Marion).  A host of Old Testament names followed - Abraham, Absalom, Adam, Benjamin, Daniel, David, Isaac, Jacob, Jonah, Noah and Tobias; Eve, Hester, Judith, Rachael, Rebecca, Sarah and Susanna.  In the sixteenth century it was an aristocratic practice to use surnames as forenames in order to keep a record of female ancestry names - Douglas, Dudley, Keith, Neville, Sidney, Stanley and Stuart.

  During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Puritans chose more unusual biblical names - Amos, Benjamin, Elijah, Ezra, Lemuel and Samuel, and Hannah - which names had an even greater following in America than England.  Educated families looked to Classical history for names - Alexander, Horace, Julius and Philip; Cassandra. In the eighteenth century, Latin forms of some English names appear notably Anna and Maria and some Anglo-Saxon names were revived - Alfred, Edgar and Edwin; Emma and Matilda.  In the nineteenth century, biblical names were revived together with virtuous names - Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence and Patience.

  In Victorian times, the use of surnames as forenames (or sometimes putting them in hyphenated surnames) was revived and is still widely used in the US.  Also pet forms of names - Nancy for Anne, Molly or Polly for Mary, Meg for Margaret, Becky for Rebecca and Sally for Sarah - appeared. The practice of giving a child two forenames is relatively recent, most Victorians stuck to one name only.  The introduction of new names has always been gradual as, from medieval times, a child would often be given the name of a close relation.  The other practice which was common was to give the child the same name as an earlier deceased brother or sister.

  The Irish Gaelic given names were often translated when they emigrated to England - Liam to William, Mícheál to Michael (a subtle one), Padraig to Patrick an Tomás to Thomas; Gráinne to Grace, Máire to Mary and Siobhán (pronounced Shiv-aun) to Susan. {However Seán may have come from the Norman-French, Jean]. The Irish Catholic tradition brought other unusual names particularly for girls - Assumpta, Perpetua - and many girls were named after Saints - Bernadette, Theresa. It was also a tradition to name the first son after the father’s father, the second son after the mother’s father, the third son after the father and the daughter’s in a similar fashion beginning with the first daughter named after the mother’s mother. A curious and confusing system that kept the number of given names used in check.

  A recent survey gave the UK top ten boys names on birth certificates issued in the United Kingdom in 2005 as Jack, Joshua, Thomas, James, Oliver, Daniel, Samuel, William, Harry and Joseph. Strong biblical theme.  Top ten girls names were Jessica, Emily, Sophie, Olivia, Chloe, Ellie, Grace, Lucy, Charlotte and Katie.

Surnames (Family names)

  The earliest form of surname arrived with the Norman Conquest in 1066.  French names linked to places began to appear - Simon de Montfort - because land was important and the name would relate to the place which the family owned.   The general origin of surnames has five main strands:

  The convention that women took their husband’s surname when they married arose gradually as surnames became hereditary.

  The surname Sharples is an interesting one. It has an Anglo-Saxon origin, the family once living at Sharples Hall near Bolton in the county of Lancashire. This habitation surname was originally derived from the Old English word scearp meaning keen or sharp and laes meaning pasture. The original bearers of the surname lived in an area that was defined by it’s steep pasture.

  People were influenced to choose surnames by the introduction of a poll tax in 1379 where everone aged 16 and over had their name recorded. And in 1413 the Statute of Additions required all legal documents not just to give a person’s name but also occupation and place of abode. So trades and professions became firmly linked to personal names. Butcher Baker Carpenter Fletcher gives a useful list of medieval occupations.

  Most urban populations had surnames by the early fifteenth century but in the countryside the process was not completed until the sixteenth century. The stock of surnames was greater in the Middle Ages than it is today despite immigration adding to the store. Many single-family surnames were lost at the time of the ‘Black Death’- bubonic plague - (1348-52) and later epidemics around 1360 and 1370 when between a third and half the population died.  The Normans used suffixes -ot, -et, -un, -on and -in to make surnames - Perrin, Philpott. An English equivalent was -cock and -kin - Babcock, Watkins, Wilcox. The reason Smith, Taylor and Wright became so popular was that normally there would be only one craftsman of each in a self-sufficient village and so easily recognised by his occupation.

  By the sixteenth century most surnames had been fixed and the Welsh had begun to adopt English-type surnames - ap Howell became Powell or Howells, ab Ieuan became Bevan or Evans, ap Rhys became Price - with ap or ab being short for mab=son. English forenames John, William, David, Thomas and Hugh, became Jones, Williams, Davies or Davis, Thomas and Hughes. Some Welsh surnames were simply translated into English - Caradog became Craddock.

  To show how names have altered over time, consider the Welsh family surname Morris.  The famous Liber Landavensis or Book of Llandaff compiled in the early 12th century contains several references to ‘Mouric’, king of Glamorgan.  ‘Meurig’ became the typical Welsh spelling but by the 15th century in Wales the soft ending of Morys / Morris had overtaken the popularity of the hard ending of Meurig / Merrick.  In 1640, John Walter of Piercefield, near Tintern, made a will leaving “my suits and my sword done with gold wire” to “John Morrice”.  This may well have been John Morris of Tintern, a cousin of Lewis Morris (1726-1798) who signed the American Declaration of Independence and became governor of New York State. [To complicate matters, there also seems to be a later Norman surname, de Mareis - of the marshland - which turned into Morris].

  Cornish surnames have a tendancy to begin with ‘Pen-’ meaning end or top, and ‘Tre-’ meaning homestead or farm - Penrose = pen-ros, end of the moor, Trelawney = tre-launow, farmstead in a clearing. [Languages with Celtic origins include Welsh (Cymrieg) Cornish, Irish (Erse), Gaelic and Manx]. Gaelic surnames appeared in England in the nineteenth century often adapted for ease of pronunciation - MacShuibne became MacQueen.

  In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, parish records often show aliases - Steven alias Urton - which may have been preservation of a female surname useful if property was passed down through the female line. Aliases generally disappear in the eighteenth century.

  Early immigrants brought new names (although an unusual-sounding surname is most often one that has moved within the country and changed over time).  Protestants from the Low Countries and later France (Huguenots) fleeing religious persecution in the sixteenth century brought Bosanquet, Cazalet, DeLisle, Marryat, Olivier, Romilly, Savory, Tyzack.   Many Irish surnames begin with 'Ó', meaning ‘grandson of’ or ‘descendant of’, which was sometimes kept such as - Ó Dónaill becoming O’Donnell, O’Grady (grádaigh = noble one in Gaelic) and O’Neill - but often lost - Ó Ceallaigh became Kelly, Ó Murchadha, Murphy and Ó Súileabh´in became Sullivan. They also used ‘Mac’ for ‘son of’ as did the Scots.   Gypsy names include many non-gypsy surnames but these are common - Boswell, Buckland, Faa or Faw, Hearne or Heron, Lee, Lovell, Smith, Wood and Young.  The gypsies also have private names which purport to be the public name in Romany language - Petulengro for Smith (petala is horseshoe), Chumomisto for Boswell (ie Buss = Kiss, so Kisswell, choom is kiss, misto is well), Rossar-mescro for Heron (meaning duck-fellow!).

  Jewish surnames begin to appear in the mid-nineteenth century as Ashkenazic Jews arrived from central Europe.  They had been forced to adopt surnames by various governments and apart from place names, they used all sorts of sources for interesting surnames often using German which was then anglicised - Rothschild took their name from the red shield (rothen Schilde) used a sign over their shop in Frankfurt am Main, Adler means 'eagle', Goldschmidt means ‘goldsmith’. Some names are earlier, Cohen is from 'kohen', the Hebrew (Yiddish) word for 'priest' and 'Ben-' meaning 'son of' was also used - David Ben-Gurion.

  Pakistani immigrants bring a new dimension to UK names by a tradition of interchanging given and family names. A son or daughter is given a chosen forename but the forename of the father becomes the child's surname. After marriage a daughter takes her husband’s first name as her surname. So Omar Ahmad’s daughter, Fatima Omar, would change her name to Fatima Abdul after marrying Abdul Hashim. The problem with these naming conventions is that it is difficult to trace back family roots as children have a different surname to their father. In addition Muslim names are words with meanings for example Abdul means ’Servant‘ or ’Slave of ..’ (recommended by the Koran), Faisal means ‘strong, handsome’, Ibn means ‘son of ...’, Layla means ‘born of night, dark beauty’ and the parents have a duty to choose an inspiring name which limits choice. There is also the custom of adding Muhammad in front of a son’s given name.

  With Indian immigrants, the family name may represent one division of a Hindu caste (signifying occupation) or the particular village or area in India from where the family has originated. The family name is inherited by the children. One of the most widely recognised and widespread surname in the UK is Patel which originates in Gujarat, India and means ‘farmer’ or ‘village head’. They are a Forward caste as opposed to a Backward or Scheduled caste which is relevant as caste is still a factor in matrimonial choices.


Romano Lavo-Lil Word-book of the Romany - George Borrow 1905
The Oxford Guide to Family History - David Hey 1993
20,000 Names from Around the World -
Behind the Name -
Regia Anglorum -
National Statistics - & babiesnames_girls.asp
Data Wales -