Discovering Surnames: Their Origins and Meanings by J.W. Freeman

As this week’s Random Book of the Week I chose an old book of my Nan‘s, Discovering Surnames, as I wanted to show you the very cute retro 80s book cover. I thought I’d better actually read it before posting. No fraudulent activity on Brontë’s Page Turners.

Well I’m glad I spent Sunday afternoon with Mr Freeman. He notes that

Our surnames are like our way of life, never standing still, but continually changing, and are an intriguing reflection  of this process.

and his succinct analysis hits this home. He surveys the origins of British surnames – Irish, Scottish and Welsh surnames get chapters too – according to being nicknames, occupations, locations, or linked to family relationships, providing examples of ancient ancestors who carried an earlier variant, and linking in to the social history of the time. Perhaps I am distantly related to Warner le Turnur of 1180s London, one of the first skilled ‘tornours‘ (from the French) who fashioned objects of wood, metal or bone on a lathe. Perhaps 80s legend Robert Palmer had an ancestor who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and carried a palm branch on his return to make sure his neighbours knew he hadn’t given up at Canterbury. I wonder if my Welsh lot were one of those families who refused to use surnames even when they became more generally used in Wales after 1600 (probably… #rebels).

The sheer plethora of surname origins also reminds us that immigration isn’t a recent phenomenon. The number of names linked back to French localities after the Norman invasion is an obvious example, but there are lots of surnames of Scandinavian, Latin or even Hebrew origin.  The section on transatlantic surnames demonstrates the other side of the coin – the monikers carried to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand by settlers who made their homes there, such as those who disembarked from the Mayflower off the coast of New England in 1620. Take that Farage. Your name sounds well French anyway. Bloody Normans, coming over here, messing up our politics…

The section on ‘foundling names’ was as interesting as it was heart-breaking – a baby abandoned outside the parish workhouse in the dead of night was named Midnight; one found clutching a coin became Halfpenny; and one found in the street by a watchman was named Waite, the common nickname for men of that profession.  I cheered up when I read the section on how many surnames were based on pet forms of women’s names, which apparently ‘stemmed from the sense of family responsibility cultivated in earlier years by the Anglo Saxons, who introduced laws to protect wives, widows and children’. The surname Liley comes from Lylie, a pet form of Elizabeth, for example.

A fascinating little book! And I do love the cover!

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Wood So Wild says:

    Great post! I often try to guess what went on in a person’s ancestry based on his or her surname. I do know that my mother must have descended from a mill ward – the person who looked after a mill.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting! There are some interesting names on my mum’s side as you go up the maternal line – one, Sodo, is apparently French according to a google search. It makes me thirsty to find out more!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Rosemary Reader and Writer says:

    How fascinating, Bronte’s Page Turners.Have you looked at village and town names too? In my second year at university, I managed to plot the progress of the Vikings and Saxons in Leicestershire by looking at place names ending in -ton (Saxon) or -by (Viking).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! That is phenomenal! I haven’t looked into place names in detail but from what I understand there are some similarities with what happens with surnames – long histories leading to often corrupted/not-easy-to-recognise names!


  3. Rosemary Reader and Writer says:

    Yes, corrupted and not easy to recognise. Often different settlers would come along and add their own words to what was there previously. Eg Houghton-on-the-Hill. Hough means hill, so does ton… see what I mean.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Are there any books you can recommend on that? Or can we all read your thesis?!


      1. Rosemary Reader and Writer says:

        You can’t read my dissertation. I imagine the university shredded it long ago. And I can’t remember what I read either, although I do remember spending a lot of time i records office in Leicester. Sorry.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s ok! It sounds fascinating though.


  4. Rosemary Reader and Writer says:

    I’ve written two posts (not the most recent) on my blog ( reporting what people remember, about the Liverpool Blitz and working in the Lancashire mills – have you seen them?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh will have to check those out!


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