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How first names became last names

Q: Just read your post about how families got their names. But you don’t mention a kind of name I’m curious about—a last name that’s the plural of a first name, like Williams and Roberts and Stevens.

A: Names like those belong to a type known as patronyms: surnames based on a father’s or male ancestor’s first name. But they didn’t originate as plurals.

A last name like Williams, for instance, can be traced to medieval times, when a first name might be followed by “son of William” or “William’s son.” Later, these descriptions became a single name: Williamson or Williams, which was not a plural but the genitive form “William’s” without the apostrophe. (The genitive case indicates close relationships, including possession.)

This accounts for many last names of the type you mention—“son of Robert” and “Robert’s son” became Robertson and Roberts; “son of Stephen” and “Stephen’s son” became Stephens, Stevens, Stephenson, Stevenson, and so on.

In their paper “The Production of Legal Identities Proper to States,” James C. Scott, John Tehranian, and Jeremy Mathias explain it this way:

“One ‘John,’ for example, might be distinguished from another by specifying his father’s name (‘William’s John’ or ‘John-William’s-son/Williamson’); by linking him to an occupation (‘John-the-miller,’ ‘John-the shepherd’); by locating him in the landscape (‘John-on-the-hill,’ ‘John-by-the-brook’); or by noting a personal characteristic (‘John-do-little’). The written records of the manor or the parish might actually bear notations of such by-names for the sake of clarity.” (Comparative Studies in Society and History, January 2002.)

We discussed names based on location—the most numerous type of English surname—in the post you mention. And we’ve also written about names based on occupation and on personal characteristics. But we haven’t written about patronyms until now.

Patronymic surnames, especially the kinds you ask about, can sound as if they had a first name hidden inside. In fact, some first names aren’t hidden at all but used intact for surnames, as with the last names Charles, Thomas, James, Henry, etc. Still other last names—Baldwin, Foulkes, Godwin, Osmond, Thurstan, and many more—were men’s first names long ago. As first names they’ve receded into history, but they survive today as last names.

It should be noted that in the medieval period, people with additional names were generally sons. Daughters usually had them only if there was a need for record-keeping purposes and so on—that is, if they were property owners, taxpayers, heirs, litigants, etc.

The practice of using fathers’ first names as children’s second names occurs in all European languages. In England, the practice began in early Old English, when patronyms were often formed with the genitive suffixes -ing or –en (denoting “from” or “descended from”) or with the Anglo-Saxon version of “son”: suna, sune, or sunu.

Stephen Wilson mentions many Old English examples in his book The Means of Naming: A Social and Cultural History of Personal Naming in Western Europe (1998). He notes, for instance, that Bosing as a second name meant “from Bosa”; Otten meant “from Odo (or Otto)”; and Hussan sunu meant “son of Hussan,” a name recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as far back as 603.

But in those days these were merely descriptive bynames (or secondary names) used to distinguish one Wulfstan or Ælfred from another. Scholars of onomastics, the study of naming, say the practice of giving people what would eventually become family names didn’t emerge in Britain until soon after the Norman Conquest.

And the first to have them were the Norman invaders.

“The earliest hereditary family names in England are recorded in some Norman families in the late 11th century,” according to The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (2016), a four-volume, 2,992-page work that was 20 years in the making.

“By the middle of the 14th century almost everyone who was not a pauper had a byname or ‘surname’ of some sort, however impermanent,” write the authors, Patrick Hanks, Richard Coates, and Peter McClure. “The growth of hereditary surnaming took longer.”

While the Norman nobles usually derived their surnames from the names of their lands or baronial properties—either in England or back in Normandy—humbler families usually adopted second names from places, occupations, personal traits, fathers’ baptismal, or fathers’ pet names (shortened or altered forms, like Robb and Robin, for Robert).

Mothers’ names, too, were used to form second names, though less commonly. A matronym might be given, for instance, to honor a mother who died in childbirth or one who was socially or economically more important than the father. Occasionally a matronym was given to a child born out of wedlock or adopted.

Examples of matronymic surnames include Annis, derived from Agnes; Babb and Babbitt, from Barbara; Catlin and Gatling, from Catherine; Sisley, from Cecily; Jeeves, from Genevieve; Jowett, from Juliana; and Marriott, Merrit, and Marrit, all derived from Mariot, a medieval pet name for both Mary and Margery.

Then there are Mallet, Malin, Malkin, Mallinson, Malkinson, Maulson, Malleson, and more, all from pet names for Maud and Matilda, two extremely popular baptismal names for women in medieval Britain.

In addition, some surnames can be traced to either gender. Beaton and Beeton, for instance, came from pet names used for both Beatrice and Bartholomew. And Tibbs is from Tibbe, a pet name for both Isabel and Theobald.

But getting back to patronymic surnames, a great many can be traced to pet names, the shortened or altered forms we’ve been talking about. Medieval examples of men’s pet names include Cole (from Nicholas), Duke (Marmaduke), Judd (Jordan), Lar (Lawrence), Phipp (Philip), Sim (Simon), and Wat (Walter).

To existing pet names, diminutive suffixes like “-kin,” “-cock,” “-ot,” “-lot,” “-et,” “-let,” “-in,” “-lin,” and “-en” could be added to form even more pet names in medieval times. So a pet name like Tom could also take the form Tomelin or Tomkin; Lar could become Larkin; Sim could become Simmins or Simcock; Cole could become Colin; Wat could become Watkin. And all of those could be handed on as last names.

Combinations of all these elements—the names and pet names of fathers, an added “-son” or “-s,” diminutive suffixes, plus variant spellings—gave English a nearly endless supply of patronymic last names.

We’ll list some of these, but first a few caveats.

New research methods, based on documentary evidence from medieval records, have disproved or superseded many of the etymologies you’ll find online or in popular surname dictionaries. To date, the definitive source is The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland.

Peter McClure, the book’s chief etymologist, has written that the medieval pet forms of many first names “have still to be reliably established, notwithstanding the confidence with which dictionaries of personal names assert particular etymologies.”

Keep in mind that some modern pet names, like Hal and Bill and Bob, were unknown in Middle English. And different names sometimes had identical pet names, so the exact source of a patronymic surname may be impossible to pin down without a medieval document to verify a line of descent.

Another thing to keep in mind is that many surnames have alternative sources. For example, the surname Day can be traced to a pet name for both David and Ralph, but it’s also an occupational name traditionally associated with dairies. And Simonson is both a patronymic and a locative name (short for Simonstone, a hamlet in North Yorkshire).

So, with those warnings in mind, here are a few of the more common first names dating from Middle English (with their medieval pet name in parentheses), and the forms of them that have come down to us as modern surnames.

  • David (pet names Davy, Day, Dey, Dawe, Dawkin): David, Davidson, Davison, Davis, Davies, Day, Daykin, Dakin, Dakins, Dayson, Deason, Dawes, Dawson, Dawkin, Dawkins, McDaid, McDade, McDavitt, McDevitt.
  • Geoffrey, Jeffrey (pet names Geff, Jeff, Gep, Jep, Gipp, Jepp, Jebbe, Joppe, Job): Geoffries, Jeffries, Jefferson, Jeffers, Jepps, Jeffson, Jepson, Jephson, Jipson, Jebson, Jesson, Jobson, Jaffrey, Jeffcock, Jeffcott, Jephcott, Jeffers, Joplin, Joblin, Jobling, Jobbins.
  • Henry (pet names Hann, Hanke, Hanry, Hen, Hend, Hendy, Hancock, Henriot, Herriott, Henekin, Hankin, Harry): Henry, Henson, Henrys, Harry, Hanks, Harriott, Herriott, Harris, Harrison, Hancock, Handcock, Hancox, Hankins, Hankinson, Hawkin, Hawkins, Hawkinson, Hendrick, Hendricks, Hendry, Fitzhenry, Penry, Pendry, McHenry, McHendry.
  • Hugh (pet names Huget, Hugin, Hugun, Huchon, Hewet, Huet, Huget, Hewkin, Hewlett, Hudd, Howet, Howat, Hukin): Hughes, Hughson, Hewson, Hewett, Hewlett, Hewit, Hewitson, Howson, Howison, Howitt, Howlett, Howett, Hudd, Hudson, Huggins, Hugginson, Hutcheon, McCutcheon, Hutcheonson, Hutchins, Hutchings, Hutchinson, McHutchison, McQuillan, McQuilkin, Fitzhugh, Pugh.
  • John (pet names Jak, Jakke, Jake, Jeke, Jegge, Jen, Jenet, Jankin, Jenkin, Jonkin, Hann, Hancock, Hankin, Henks): Jones, Evans, Johns, Johnson, Jackson, Janks, Jenks, Jakins, Jeakins, Jenkins, Jenkinson, Jennings, Johncock, Hanks, Hankin, Hancock, Handcock, Hancox, Hanson, Fitzjohn. (The name John was handed down not just in pet names but in nicknames—that is, names based on a personal trait—like Littlejohn, Bonjohn, Grosjean, Prujean.)
  • Ralph (pet names Raff, Rauf, Raw, Rawle, Raul, Raulin, Rawkin, Day, Dey, Daw, Dakin, Daude, Dawlin, Dawkin, Haw, Hawkin): Ralphson, Rawes, Rawkin, Rawson, Rowson, Rawle, Rawlin, Rawlings, Rawlinson, Daud, Dawkin, Dawkins, Dawlin, Dawling, Dawson, Dawes, Hawes, Hawkin, Hawkins, Hawson, Howis.
  • Richard (pet names Deke, Dick, Dicken, Diccon, Rick, Rich, Hikke, Hikock, Hecock, Hiche, Higg): Richard, Richards, Richardson, Ricks, Rix, Rickard, Rickards, Rickett, Rickman, Rich, Ritchie, McRitchie, Ritson, Dickenson, Dickson, Dixon, Dix, Dickens, McDicken, Hitchen, Hitchins, Hitchings, Hitchinson, McHutchison, Hitchcock, Heacock, Hicks, Hickox, Hickey, Hickman, Hickson, Higgs, Higgins, Higginson, Higgitt.
  • Robert (pet names Robb, Dobb, Hobb, Hopp, Nobb, Robin, Robet, Rabb, Dobbin, Hoby, Hobin, Hobkin, Hoblin, Hopkin): Roberts, Robertson, Robarts, Robbins, Robinson, Robison, Robinet, Robnett, Rabson, Rapson, Robson, Rabb, Rabbitt, Dobb, Dabb, Dobbs, Dabbs, Dabson, Dabinett, Dobkin, Dobson, Dobbin, Hobb, Hobbes, Hobson, Hobbins, Hoblyn, Hopkins, Hopkinson, Hopson, Nobb, Knobbs, McRobb, McRoberts, McRobbie, Probert, Probyn.
  • Roger (pet names Rodge, Dodge, Hodge, Hodgkin, Roget, Rogerun): Rogers, Rogerson, Roget, Dodge, Dodgson, Hodge, Hodges, Hodgson, Hodgetts, Hodgkins, Hodgkinson, Hodgkiss, Hodgkison, Hotchkins, Hotchkiss, Fitzsimmons, Rosser, Prosser, Prodger.
  • Simon (pet names Sim, Sime, Simcock, Simkin): Simon, Simons, Simonson, Simson, Simpson, Simpkin, Simpkinson, Simcox, Simnett, Simms, Simmons, Simmonds, Symonds, Symondson.
  • Thomas (pet names Tam, Tamelin, Tom, Tomelin, Tomkin): Thomas, Thoms, Thomasson, Thompson, Thompkins, Tomkins, Tomkinson, Tomlin, Tomlins, Tomlinson, Thomsett, Thompset, Tamlyn, Tamblin, Tamblyn, Tamplin.
  • Walter (pet names Wat, Watte, Watkin): Walter, Walther, Walters, Wolters, Waters, Waterson, Watts, Watten, Watkin, Watkins, Watson, Watkinson, Fitzwalter, Fitzwater, McWalter, McWatt, McWatters, McQuaid, Gwatkin, Gautier (through the French form).
  • William (pet names Will, Wilke, Wilet, Wilot, Wilcok, Wilkin, Wilky): Williams, Williamson, Will, Wills, Willis, Wilson, Willett, Wilcock, Wilcox, Wilcockson, Willmott, Wilks, Wilkes, Wilken, Wilkie, Wilkins, Wilkinson, Wilkerson, Fitzwilliam, McWilliam, McWilliams, McQuilkin, Culkin, Gillam, Gwilliam.

As you can see, a small number of male first names formed great numbers of English surnames. In addition, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales had their own ways of forming patronymic surnames.

In Irish and Scottish Gaelic, mac is a common noun meaning “son,” and prefixed to a name, Mac or the clipped Mc signifies “son of” (e.g., MacDermot = “son of Dermot”). And in Irish Gaelic, is a common noun for “grandson.” But in names, the prefix (Anglicized outside of Irish as O’), stands for “descendant of.”

In Wales, the Welsh ap or ab (equivalent to “son”) was used to form patronymics. So ap, added to Hugh, resulted in ap Hugh, for “son of Hugh” (shortened to Pugh). This also accounts for Price (from ap Rhys); Bowen (ap Owen); Bevan (ap Evan, a form of John); Pritchard (ap Richard); Pumphrey (ap Humphrey); Parry (ap Harry), and others.

English nobles also sometimes used patronymic affixes other than “son.” Frequently they used “de” (a French nobiliary particle, a type we wrote about in 2010), or “fitz” (after the French fils, for “son”), creating names like Fitzgerald (“son of Gerald”), Fitzgibbon (from a pet form of Gilbert), Fitzpatrick, Fitzwarren, and so on.

Names are endlessly interesting. In a previous post we discussed names that include the old diminutive “-kin” (like Watkins, from Walter). And we’ve written about British names that don’t look like their pronunciations (as with Cholmondeley, pronounced “Chumley”), as well as those odd-looking surnames that begin with a double “f” (as in ffoulkes and ffolliott).

Finally, we’ve written about first names that are abbreviated in old documents (like Charles as “Chas” and Jonathan as “Jno.” or “Jno.”).

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