Origin of Surnames

A surname is a name shared in common to identify the members of a family, as distinguished from each member’s given name. It is also called a family name, or last name. In ancient times crest and mottoes may have been used by every family, but with the passing of the centuries some have been omitted or forgotten, and no records of these have survived.

Surnames originated in four ways according to place, occupation, or (son of), or nicknames. Place names being the highest percent. In England, people took the name of their village or area they lived in e.g. Woodford, (wood by the ford) or Green (by the village green).
Occupational names are based on a trade such as Miller or Smith (blacksmith). Some names originated by using a prefix such as O’Malley (Irish for “descendant of Malley”) or MacGregor (Scottish for “son of Gregory”).However, some languages use a suffix e.g. Peterson (son of Peter).
Finally, some surnames are derived from nicknames e.g. Little (someone small in stature), Long fellow (someone long legged), or Reid (someone with red hair).When local governments required names to be listed on official documents, the standardization of surnames became common.
An open mind is needed when researching ancestors as it can be difficult due to the changes in the spelling of a name by misfortune or carelessness.


Coat of Arms

In olden times coat of arms, crest and mottoes may have been used by everyone, but as time went on some have been forgotten, and no record of them survived.
Heraldry originated from tribal emblems and insignia used by warriors in olden times, and began in the 11th and 12th centuries in Europe and England. The sporting and military use of heraldry became less important and eventually became a decorative art. Coats-of-Arms were used in many forms e.g. carved over doorways, woven into tapestries, placed in stained glass windows or engraved on silver.
Today, the heraldry work is a symbolic and decorative form of art, and is concerned mainly with family, corporate, civic heraldry.

The motto was evolved from the password or war-cry of the family, and often the motto contained a memorable event in the family history; The motto of the Clarke family is ‘Carpe Diem’. translated means
‘ Seize the present opportunity ‘.This must have had some significant meaning to the family.


Origins of The Woodford Family.

Woodford Family Coat of Arms

 First found in Leicestershire where they held a family seat from the Norman Conquest in 1066, and arrived in England with William the Conqueror. Although the ancient Woodford family of Leicestershire appears to have lost much of its property, wealth and influence at about the time of the death of Sir Ralph Woodford of Ashby Folville (late 15th Century), his sons moving away to establish families in other parts of the country such as Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire, it is certain that at least two branches of the family remained in Leicestershire. One of these remained in the Ashby Folville area, and later appears to have been centered in the Barsby area. Rothley Court Records note a Thomas Woodford of Barsby (1567 and 1569) having at least five sons.My Woodford ancestors originated from Billesdon Leicestershire and migrated to Leicester


Origins of The Runnalls Family.

Runnalls Family Coat of Arms

This is an old Cornish name but has many variations from Runnalls, Runals, Reynolds, Runnells. As you can see the coat of arms spelling “Runnells”. My Runnalls ancestors have been associated with Penzance and documented since 1826 when the corporation pulled down the old Poor House located on Market Jew Street and granted a lease of the site for £10.10s. a year to Mr. H. W. Runnalls, who built two shops occupied by Mr. James Runnalls, (his son) and Mr. Kinsman (the second – hand bookseller).



Origins of The Houghton Family

Houghton Family Coat of Arms

Hocton is the Anglo – Saxon word for ‘high town” or “high place” Houghton originated from the Norman “de Hoghton” meaning of Houghton, and was a common place name in England.

The earliest Houghton came to England on the same ship with William the Conqueror. “Herverus”, was a Norman French who accompanied the armies of William the Conqueror when the Norman’s invaded England in the year 1066. William De Hocton acquired several tracts of land in Suffolk, Norfolk and Lancashire. My Houghton ancestors have been traced to the Bethnel Green area of London.


Origins of The Wakefield Family

Wakefield Family Coat of Arms

Spelling variations in names were a common occurrence before English spelling was standardized a few hundred tears ago. In the Middle ages, even the literate spelled their names differently as the English language incorporated elements of French, Latin, and other European languages. Many variations of the name Wakefield have been found, including Wakefield, Wakefeild and others.

First found in Yorkshire where they held a family seat from very ancient times. Wachefeld being King William’s land, which included in 1066 two churches. One of the more interesting first mentions the name of Wakefield or Peter of Pontefract (died 1213), an English hermit. He prophesied that King John’s crown would be passed to another by next Ascension Day, 23 May 1213.This prophecy spread throughout Britain, even to France. King John had him imprisoned and when the forecasted day came and went, had him gruesomely killed for vengeance.


Origins of The Smith Family

Smith Family Coat of Arms

The People known in ancient Scotland as the Picts were the fore fathers of the Smith family. It is a name for a Smithy. Although Smith appears to  be an occupational name for a blacksmith, it has been suggested that when the surnames came into  use in Scotland, several different families simply took on the name whether they had been blacksmiths or not.

Thus, Smith is a classic example of a polygenetic surname that was developed in a number of different locations and adopted by various families independently.There are many variations of the spelling of the name, Smith, Smyth, Smythe


Origins of the Isham Family

Isham Family Coat of Arms

The family name of Isham is pronounced “Eye-shum”, and comes  from a Northamptonshire village of the same name, which derives in turn from a brook called the Ise that flows through the western part of the county. The family appeared as tenants here, and in the neighboring village of Pytchley, in the days of the conquest, and trace their descent from one Azor or Azo de Isham, who is mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1085-1087 as holding the demesnes (fife) of Isham. Although various family members continue to be mentioned over the next five centuries, they did not truly come into prominence until 1568 when John Isham (1525-1595) made a fortune as a wool merchant and built the manor house of Lamport Hall in the Daventry District of Northamptonshire.

My connection to the Isham family is through my Paternal Great Grandmother Mary Slater whose 7th Great Grand Father Richard Slatier married Edith Isham in 1551.

Origins of The Slater Family

Slater Family Coat of Arms

This surname is of early medieval English origin, and is an occupational name for someone who covered roofs with slate.  The derivation is from the Middle English “s(c)late”, from the Old French”esclate”, slate, with the addition of the agent suffix”er” (one who does or works with). Job-descriptive surnames originally denoted the actual occupation of the name bearer and later became hereditary.

Early examples of the surname include: Roger Sclatiere and Walter Sclatter, recorded respectively in the 1279 Hundred Rolls of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, also Thomas Slater, entered in the Subsidy Rolls of Yorkshire, in 1297.  In the modern idiom the name has four spelling variations: Slator,Sclater, Slatter and Slater. My Great Grandmother was Mary Slater of Northamptonshire.

2 Responses to “Origin of Surnames”

  • David Lonsdale:

    I see you have done a lot of work on your family tree and I see lots of overlap with my tree. My mothers name was Dean whose father was born in the King Arms Polebrook. His mother was Charlotte Slatcher of Polebrook whose father seems to be a common ancestor.
    I am interested as to your sources for the history of the Slatcher family as like yourself my tree goes way back through Richard Slatcher who married Edith Isham to confirm my work. I have done alot of work also on the Dean family of Polebrook which ties into lots of other well known families in the area which may be of interest.
    Look forward to hearing from you.


    David Lonsdale.

  • admin:

    Hi David, You would be surprised to know that you gave me permission to view your tree on ancestry.co.uk so followed your tree line and confirmed the sources. You have helped me greatly in tracing my Slater line and glad you have found my tree here.
    Best wishes

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