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Surname Origins and Distribution (Including Scotland and Ireland)

Nature of Source

Research into the origin and distribution of surnames. Analysis of the distribution of a surname could offer clues to the geographical location of a person or family being researched. Surnames generally came into use during the middle ages especially with the need to record inheritances and land transfers. The growth of settlements and towns also needed a way of distinguishing one person from another.

There are four broad categories from which surnames derive and may indicate the trade or place of origin of a person:

These are surnames derived from the name of a father or grandfather. Thus Richard the son of John was known as Richard Johnson. Confusingly, William the son of the aforementioned Richard could become known as William Richardson. However over time, it became normal to maintain the patronymic through the generations. Sometimes the surname's spelling changed over time such as Anderson (Andrew's son) and Harris (Harry's son). Jones is the Welsh version for Johnson. Fitz meaning 'son' in French became a popular prefix after the Norman invasion, especially in Ireland e.g. Fitzhugh. In Scotland and Ireland, surnames often began with Mac (Gaelic for 'son of' or 'descendant of'). Irish surnames beginning with 'O' mean 'grandson of'. In Scotland especially in the Highlands many people assumed the surname of the local Clan Chief such as Campbell. In Wales the prefix 'ap' or 'ab' (from the word 'mab' the Welsh for son) before a vowel means 'son of' as in Hugh ap Richard. Over time these name became shortened so Hugh ap Richard became Hugh Pritchard. The patronymic naming convention can also create difficulties for researchers whereby a father's forename or first name is given to the child as a surname. Instead of a family name remaining the same over generations, family surnames kept changing over successive generations.

Descriptive or nickname
These names were assigned based on the physical characteristics of a person. Examples include Little, Long and Small to describe physical size, Red, Redhead or Black after hair colour or complexion and Armstrong, Stern and Stout describing personal characteristics.

Many of these names are self-evident such as Smith, Farmer, Wright and Cooper. Others are less obvious such as Baxter (baker), Chandler (candle maker), Day (dairy worker), Fletcher (arrow maker), Frobisher (armour and sword polisher), Leach (doctor), Machin (stone-worker), Redman (reed thatcher), and Webster (weaver).

Geographical or Locational
These provide around a half of surname origins and are based on a person's residence. Look for suffixes such as -lee (meadow), -bank, -don or -ton (town), -ham (village), -field, -house, -thorp (village).

Be aware of unreliable websites offering misleading and far-fetched surname origins. Naming patterns can offer clues to the names of a person's ancestors but strict adherence to these patterns declined in the 19th century. The most usual pattern was: 1st son after paternal grandfather 2nd son after maternal grandfather 3rd son after father 1st daughter after maternal grandmother 2nd daughter after paternal grandmother 3rd daughter after mother In Scotland from the early 1800's onwards it became common to assign a middle name after the mother's maiden name or one of the grandmother's maiden names.

Sometimes a name is found in an original record or in a transcription that appears to be a name variant. However it may simply be a misspelling of the name and is known as a 'deviant' name.

Until recently most people tended to live and work in the same area. Therefore the distribution of a surname can offer clues to the residence of a person or family. More complex surname analysis covering a particular area can help with family history by establishing demographic trends within that area.

The main procedures used by historical demographers to analyse population trends is family reconstitution or reconstruction and aggregation. The former method involves the collection of data mainly from parish registers (baptisms, marriages and burials) but also from other sources such as poor law records, wills, taxation records such as the Hearth Tax and manorial surveys. The data is collected from a small area or on one family and then linked to construct a demographic picture across other generations and so determine demographic trends. The latter procedure aggregates or totals the number of events such as baptisms, marriages and burials on an annual basis and so provides the data to study population trends. These methods could identify patterns of naming individuals including middle names and of family movements and origins. Be aware however that even immediate family members might not share the same surname so all surnames connected to a family will need gathering. Once the data is assembled and analysed, the next step is to construct family groups and family trees which should reveal the likely links to an ancestor being researched.

See also
Pedigrees and Family Histories

Where Found

Period Covered

1400 - Onwards

Genealogical Value

The origin of a surname could help locate and place an ancestor in a geographical location and offer a possible family occupation.

Further References

General Surnames and First Names


Ayto, John. Encyclopedia of Surnames: A & C Black, 2007


Bardsley, Alan. First Name Variants: Federation of Family History Societies, Jan 2003


Davis, Graeme. Research Your Surname and Your Family Tree: How To Books, 2010


Dunkling, Leslie Alan. First Names First: Gale Group, 1982


Fiennes, Joslin. The Origins of English Surnames: Robert Hale, 2015 Buy Now on Amazon

Hanks, Patrick & Hodges, Flavia. Dictionary of Surnames: OUP, 1988


Hanks, Patrick & Hardcastle, Kate & Hodges, Flavia. A Dictionary of First Names: OUP, 2006


Kennett, Debbie. The Surnames Handbook: A Guide to Family Name Research in the 21st Century: The History Press, 2012


Lewis, William. What's in your Surname?: Brazen Head, 2010


McKie, David. What's in a Surname?: A Journey from Abercrombie to Zwicker: Windmill Books, 2014


Mckinley, R. A History of British Surnames: Longman, 1990


McLaughlin, Eve. Surnames and their Origins: Varneys Press, 1997


Matthews, Constance Mary. How Surnames Began: Lutterworth Press, 2007


Pine, Leslie Gilbert. The Story of Surnames: Country Life, 1965


Redmonds, George & King, Turi & Hey, David. Surnames, DNA, and Family History: OUP, 2011


Redmonds, George. Christian Names in Local and Family History: Dundurn, 2004


Redmonds, George. Names and History: People, Places and Things: Hambledon, 2004 Buy Now on Amazon

Seven Pillars of Wisdom: The Art of One-Name Studies: Guild of One-Name Studies, 2012


Smith, Elsdon. The Story of Our Names: Harper & Brothers, 1950


Titford, John. Searching for Surnames: A Practical Guide to Their Meanings and Origins: Countryside Books, 2002


Titford, John. Penguin Dictionary of British Surnames: Penguin, 2009


Wrigley, E. A. (ed.). Identifying People in the Past: Arnold, 1973


England & Wales


Bardsley, Charles Wareing Endell. A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames: With Special American Instances: H. Frowde, 1901 (available to read online or download from the Internet Archive)


Bardsley, Charles Wareing Endell. English Surnames: Their Sources and Significations: Chato and Windus, 1875 (available to read online or download from the Internet Archive)


Morgan, T. J., & Morgan, P. Welsh Surnames: University of Wales Press, 1985


Reaney, Percy Hide. A Dictionary of English Surnames. 3rd ed: Oxford University Press, 2005


Reaney, PH & Wilson, RM. A Dictionary of English Surnames: Routledge, 1991 (Preview online at Google Books)


Redmonds, George. A Dictionary of Yorkshire Surnames: Paul Watkins Publishing, 2015 Buy Now on Amazon

Rowlands, John & Rowlands, Sheila. The Surnames of Wales for Family Historians and Others: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1999


Rowlands, John & Rowlands, Sheila. The Surnames Of Wales: Gomer Press, 2014
White, George Pawley. A Handbook of Cornish Surnames: Truran, 1981




Black, George. The surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning and History: Birlinn, 1999


Dorward, David. Scottish Surnames: HarperCollins, 1995


Dunkling, Leslie Alan. Scottish Christian Names: An A to Z of First Names: Bacon (G.W.) & Co., 1999


Way, George and Squire, Romilly. Collins Scottish Clan and Family Encyclopedia: HarperCollins, 1994




Bell, Robert. The Book of Ulster Surnames: Blackstaff Press, 1997


Grenham, John. Irish Family Names: The Histories of Over 120 Famous Irish Surnames: Collins, 1997 Buy Now on Amazon

Mitchell, Brian. The Surnames of North West Ireland: Concise Histories of the Major Surnames of Gaelic and Planter Origin: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2010

Buy Now on Amazon

MacLysaght, Edward: Irish Families: Their Names, Arms and Origins. 4th ed: Irish Academic Press, 1985


MacLysaght, Edward. A Guide to Irish Surnames: GPC, 1964


MacLysaght, Edward. Supplement to Irish Surnames: GPC, 1969


O'Laughlin, Michael. The Master Book of Irish Surnames: Irish Genealogical Foundation, 1993


O'Laughlin, Michael. The Birth Index of Ireland: Irish Genealogical Foundation, 2004


Quinn, Sean. Surnames in Ireland: Irish Genealogy Press, 2000


Woulfe, Patrick. Irish Names and Surnames: Irish Genealogical Foundation, 1992




Beider, Alexander. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Kingdom of Poland: Avotaynu, 1996


Beider, Alexander. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire: Avotaynu. 1993


Beider, Alexander. Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names: Avotaynu


Beider, Alexander. Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Galicia: Avotaynu


Gorr, Shmuel. Jewish Personal Names: Avotaynu


Guggenheimer, Henrich W., and Eva A. Guggenheimer. Jewish Family Names and Their Origins: An Etymological Dictionary: KTAV, 1992 (View online at Google Books)


Kaganoff, Benzion. A Dictionary of Jewish Names & Their History: Schocken Books, 1977


Menk, Lars. A Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames: Avotaynu, 2005


Community Studies


Drake, Michael and Finnegan, Ruth. Sources and Methods for Family and Community Historians: A Handbook. 2nd ed: Cambridge University Press, 1997v 


Few, Janet. Putting Your Ancestors in their Place: A Guide to One Place Studies: The Family History Partnership, 2014 


Golby, John (Ed). Communities and Families: Cambridge University Press, 1994 (View online at Google Books) 


Hawgood, David. One-Place Genealogy: D. Hawgood, 2001 


Rogers. Colin. The Surname Detective: Investigating Surname Distribution in England Since 1086: Manchester University Press 1995 (View online at Google Books) 


Todd, Andrew. Family History Nuts and Bolts; Problem-Solving through Family Reconstitution Techniques: Andrew Todd, 2015

Buy Now on Amazon

Wrigley, E. A. (Ed). Identifying People in the Past: Arnold, 1973


Wrigley, E. A. [et al.]. English Population History from Family Reconstitution, 1580-1837: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997



United Kingdom, including Irealand (The Online Historical Population Reports Website) (Surname distribution based on the 1881 census and the covering England, Scotland & Wales and the Griffith’s Valuation 1847 to 1864 covering Ireland) (The Surname Society. The society is a not-for-profit entity focussing on single surname studies Membership of the Society is open to any individual, group or association with an interest in surname studies, regardless of their location in the world, the surname they are studying, or their level of research expertise) (Surname meanings covering British, Scottish, European and Jewish names) (Surname mapping and distribution) (Behind the Name: The etymology and history of surnames covering English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Jewish Names (Behind the Name: The etymology and history of first names covering English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Biblical and Jewish Names) (Great Britain Family Names Profiling: Current and historical surname distribution. For more resources see (Surname distribution & meanings) (Ancestral Atlas: Website offering the ability to map family history events where the events took place)
(AboutBritain: Popular Victorian Names) (History and origin of surnames) (History and origin of surnames) (Meaning of surnames) (Online tutorial covering the origins of surnames) (Lists of first names & surnames taken from the 1891 census) (Guild of One-Name Studies: Surname Variants and Deviants) (Surname distribution, 1891 and surname origins)
(Variant names. Comprehensive database of name variants) (Guide & links to medieval naming patterns),_Personal (FamilySearch Research Wiki: Wales Names, Personal)
(FamilySearch Research Wiki: Traditional Nicknames in Old Documents. Alphabetical list of historic personal nicknames and what they represent) (Scottish Forename Variants) (British Baby Names: Here you will find statistical analyses, historical research, discussions on current trends and general rambled musings on names all from a British perspective) (Name Nerds. Site dedicated to the origins and meanings of first names from Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as general information on first names) (Baby Names. Dictionary on name meanings. Uncover thousands of baby names and discover the meaning of names, their origins, pronunciations and popularity) (Scottish Surnames and Variants) (English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish naming patterns) (Findmypast Blog: Traditional Scottish Naming Patterns by Alex Cox) (The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure) (Online English Names Directory: Listing of names being researched by family historians)
(Irish Ancestors Surname Search. Enter a surname and find out: How the name is mapped to counts of surnames recorded year-by-year in state registrations of births in Ireland between 1864 and 1913; The number and location of households of the name in Ireland 1848-64; A surname map, showing numbers and locations throughout Ireland; Variant spellings or associated names; Surname dictionary entries; Surname histories; The number and location of births of the name in 1890; Published or printed family histories; A possible coat of arms associated with the name) (Library Ireland: Irish Names. Various searchable digitised books about Irish names, their meaning and etymology. The site offers free online access to a broad range of Irish related material including articles, digitised reference books and searchable databases covering Irish history, genealogy, and culture)
(Resources include: Surname distribution in mid-19th century in Ireland based on analysis of data on Griffiths Valuation; List of the most common surnames in Ireland based on analysis of births registered in Ireland during 1890)
(Irish Central: The top 100 Irish last names explained, by Bryan Fitzgerald)
UK and Worldwide (Database of Surnames in the Netherlands) (Worldwide surname distribution) (Surname distribution maps and statistics including the UK, USA, Canada, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Poland, Argentina. Use the German site for the drop-down list of countries, which does not appear on the UK site) (Naming practices and patterns for different countries and cultures) (Forebears: A dictionary of 11 million surname meanings, including information on their geographic distribution) (International Council of Onomastic Sciences: Links to UK and overseas organisations dealing with the study of names) (German language site dealing with the origins and meanings of names as well as placenames. The site also offers a surname distribution map)
(Irish Ancestors Surname Search: Variant spellings or associated names; surname dictionary entries; surname histories) (The origin of Irish family names)
(Ireland Surnames & Family Histories. Discover more about your Irish family name and history from this collection of Irish publications) (Online Tracing your Irish Ancestors Course designed and presented by the genealogist John Grenham. The 11 modules will give you the tools and techniques to comprehensively trace your Irish family history. The online tutorials will provide you with a wide-ranging guide to all the records, resources and research techniques you will need. Modules include Irish Surnames & Placenames)  
Other (Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter: Soundex Explained) (The Guild of One-Name Studies: The guild provides advice and forums for those engaged in one-name research) (RootsWeb: The site operates as a genealogical community designed to help people share genealogical research. Users can search records transcribed by volunteers, upload your own family tree, join a mailing list, post your own surname and build your own genealogy website. For a detailed insight into RootsWeb read The Official Guide to by Myra Vanderpool Gormley and Tana Pedersen Lord)

Online Databases (Surname Navigator: Search across multiple genealogy databases) ( Free genealogy search engine providing search results for billions of names, dates and places worldwide. The UK site is available at (GenDex Network: Free genealogical index which indexes family trees on the internet) (Genealogy Search Engine: Search billions of free online ancestral records across 500+ websites from around the world; Family Tree Search Engine: Search genealogy forums and online family trees) (AncestorSearch: Site created by Randy Majors to help find ancestors using Google Custom Search)

CD Roms (The British 19th Century Surname Atlas and the GenMap UK) (Map My Family Tree software) (Family Atlas software from RootsMagic)