The Grammarphobia Blog

How families got their names

Q: My last name, Doremus, is an American alteration of “de Remes.” (The patriarch of the family probably came from Rheims in France.) When did a family’s place of origin become its last name?

A: Inherited family names developed very gradually and irregularly in Europe, beginning in the 11th and 12th centuries and emerging slowly over the next few hundred years. And not all were “locative” or “toponymic”—that is, based on place names.

Without tax or birth records to rely on, it’s difficult to say when a particular name started being passed down within a family. But it’s safe to say that “de Remes” probably became hereditary sometime between the 11th and 15th centuries.

In England, inherited family names did not exist, even among royalty, before the Norman Conquest of 1066, according to Surnames, DNA, and Family History (2011), by George Redmonds, Turi King, and David Hey.

Hereditary names in England, the authors write, were introduced by the Norman barons, though only a few of the conquerors arrived with inherited names and none of the names were more than a couple of generations old.

Most of the barons adopted hereditary names after arriving, naming themselves after their new holdings in England or their old estates in Normandy. However, it took a while for family names to become fixed even among the nobility.

“Indeed, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries,” the authors write, “some junior members of baronial families assumed different surnames, while the convention that married women acquired their husband’s name took time to become established.”

Gradually the fashion for inherited family names spread. Most knights in the south of England had them by about 1200, the authors write, and by the early 1400s so did most English families, though “some of these names continued to evolve and were sometimes changed out of recognition.”

Historians generally agree that in England, the great surge in hereditary surnames occurred between 1250 and 1450. So how did people distinguish one John or Alfred from another before people had last names?

In earlier times, first names were often accompanied by nicknames (or “bynames”) consisting of some identifying characteristic. This in fact was the original meaning of the word “surname”; it simply meant something added to a name.

So a byname could be based on someone’s parentage; their occupation; where they lived; their personal appearance (like the color of their hair, complexion, clothing, etc.); or some trait or habit, ability or disability.

And such names were not official. A byname could change, or a single person might have more than one. At any rate, it was these bynames that were the precursors of inherited family names.

But even after family names were adopted, they were changeable and might take many generations to become fixed. And early on, these names were almost as idiosyncratic as the nicknames they grew out of.

In his book Family Names and Family History (2006), David Hey writes: “Amongst the taxpayers of Gatcombe in the Isle of Wight in 1379 was a man named William Godbeourhelp. We have to assume that his name was given to him by his neighbors who were amused or exasperated at the frequency with which he used this particular expression.” (The interjection “God be our help!” was equivalent to “God help us!”)

Hey also notes that in the Essex tax rolls for 1381, three men had the last name Inthelane, a name for where they lived. Eventually, Hey writes, the article and preposition fell out of the last name, and “in time, Inthelane became simply Lane.”

There were no rules about this. As Richard A. McKinley writes in A History of British Surnames (1990): “It is generally impossible to say why, for instance, a man living about 1300 who was a blacksmith, who had a father called William, and who walked with a limp, came to be called Smith, rather than Williamson or Crookshank.”

We’ve written several posts about the development of surnames in English, which is a fascinating subject.

In 2016 we wrote about occupational surnames like Potter, Weaver, and the ubiquitous Smith, which was recorded as a byname as early as the 900s.

We’ve also discussed names based on color (White, Black, Green, Reade, etc.) or personal appearance (as in Fairfax, for “fair haired”).

In addition, we’ve written posts about family names that include particles like “de” and “la,” and about British surnames that don’t look like their pronunciations, as with Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”) and Featherstonehaugh (“Fanshaw”).

We’ve also discussed names that include “-kin” (Watkins, Hawkins, Jenkins, and so on), as well as those odd-looking names that begin with a double “f” (as in ffoulkes and ffolliott).

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