Types of Surnames


In Europe until the 12th century, most people were called by their first name. However, in order to tell people apart the use of surnames gradually became accepted throughout Western Europe during the Middle Ages. In many countries the use of surnames became hereditary (passed on) because the government wanted to be able to tax people more effectively. Can you believe that in the 13th century 1/3 of the male population had the same name!

Names did change over the years just by the way people pronounced them or by the way that the name became translated. For example, in Ireland gaelic names changed by being anglicised (made to sound more English).

So, our naming system can be divided into four types of surnames based on their origin.

Patronymic or Matronymic names
These come from the father or mothers first name. Examples include Johnson, Williamson or Thompson. These type of names are very common in Wales.

Locational and Topographical names
Locational surnames come from the place where someone lived for example Barnes or Hatfield. Topographical names come from features of the local landscape such as Wood, Hill or Underwood.

Occupational names (or metonymic surnames)
These names came from the occupations or jobs that people did in the Middle Ages. Examples of this type of name include Farmer, Miller, Skinner, Baker, and Smith. There must have been many hundreds of people who were Blacksmiths at one time (shortened to the name Smith). Could this be why there are so many people with that name today?

Nicknames (or sobriquets)
These names come from an aspect of the personís character or their physical make-up. Examples of this type are names Stern, White, Young, Long.