In “A Dictionary of Surnames,” Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges have laid out where early last names come from and what they mean. Through research into genealogy and linguistics, they found the bulk of European surnames were formed in the 13th and 14th centuries as societies became more bureaucratic and began collecting taxes.
Early last names fall into a few major categories of origin. Many began as nicknames.
If your last name today falls into this category of name, you could theoretically learn something about the personality or appearance of one of the very first people to share your name. For example, a town that had several people named “John” might have started calling one of them “John Beal.” “Beal” comes from “bel” — fair or lovely — and could refer to someone handsome.
Names didn’t have to come from nicknames. Variations of people’s occupations, a distinguishing geographical feature near their homes, or a version of their mother’s or father’s first name could also become their last name.
Last names that originated from nicknames are a particularly interesting category, though. Sometimes they were even based on negative traits, but Europeans rarely changed them once they officially went on record. During the period that last names were being adopted, people accepted their new last names as their God-given names.
Indeed, you may have a last name that originated from somebody ribbing one of your ancestors or making a comment on their appearance.
While names from a number of European languages originated from nicknames, below we have broken out only English last names and their likely corresponding meanings, as determined by Hanks and Hodges.
Arlott — vagabond, rascal; Ayer — an heir to a title or fortune
Back — someone with a hunched back or peculiarity; Bairnsfather — father or alleged father of an illegitimate child; Barfoot — someone who went about his business, peasant; Bass — nickname for a short man; Bastard — nickname for an illegitimate child; Bay — nickname for someone with chestnut or auburn hair; Bayard — reckless; Beake — person with a prominent nose; Beal — handsome (from bel: fair, lovely); Bear — nickname for a person who has a mix of strength and amusement; Beard — wearer of a beard; Beauclerk — “fair clerk”; Beavis — nickname for an affectionate address; Bee — energetic or active person; Belcher — someone with a fair and lovely face; Besson — a twin (from bis, twice); Bevin — nickname for a wine drinker (from beivre to drink; vin wine); Biss — someone with an unhealthy complexion; Black — a swarthy or dark-haired man; Blacklock — someone with dark hair; Blake — another variant of blac that sometimes meant pale, white, fair; Blanchflower — ironic name for a man of feminine appearance; Blessed — a fortunate individual; Blewett — a habitual wearer of blue; Bligh, Bliss — a cheerful person; Blunt — someone with fair hair (from blund), a stupid person (from blont, dull); Boast, Boggis — a boastful man; Body — corpulent; Bold — bold, courageous; Bonney — handsome; Bonser — from bon sire good sir, given to a fine gentleman either ironically or seriously; Bowler — a heavy drinker; Bradman — broad, well built man; Breakspear — a successful warrior or jouster; Breeze — an irritating person; Brisbane — from to break and bone; probably used for someone crippled by a broken bone; Broad — stout; Brown — someone with brown hair; Buck — a man who resembles a goat; Bull — large, aggressive man; Bunker — reliable; Burr — a person who is difficult to shake off (from bur, a seed head that sticks to clothing)
Cain — a tall, thin man; Cannon — someone living in a clergy house; Cardinal — someone who acted lordly and patronizing; Carless — carefree; Catt — from the animal; Chaff — bald; Chance — a gambler or someone who had survived an accident; Child — someone considerably younger than his siblings; Chopin — a heavy drinker; Cock — a natural leader; Cockayne — an idle dreamer; Cocker — a bellicose person; Coley — a swarthy person; Comley — a handsome man; Coney — rabbit; Converse — a Jew converted to Christianity; Corderoy — proud; Couch — a red-haired man; Counsel — a wise or thoughtful man; Cousin — familiar; Crisp — a man with curly hair; Cruise — bold, fierce; Curtis — a refined person
Dain — important person; Dark — someone with dark hair; Devin — nickname of either ironic or literal application of devin, divin excellent; Dick — a stout, thick man; Doe — a mild and gentle man; Doggett — nickname with abusive connotations; Dolittle — a lazy man; Dormer — a lazy man, (from dormire to sleep); Doughty — powerful or brave; Dowling — stupid person, (from doll stupid); Drury — nickname for love; Ducker — nickname derivative (from douke to dive, plunge); Duke — someone who gives himself airs and graces
Eagle — a lordly, impressive or sharp eyed man; Elder — distinguishing name bestowed on the older one of a group
Fair — beautiful; Fairfax — someone with beautiful, long hair (from feax, hair, tresses; Faith — a trustworthy person; Farrant — someone with grey hair; Fay — someone with supernatural qualities, (from faie or fairy); Fear — a sociable person (from feare, comrade companion); Fiddy — son of God; Figgis — trustworthy or reliable; Fillery — illegitimate son of a monarch; Finch — from the bird, which in the Middle Ages had a reputation for stupidity; Fitt — polite; Foot — deformity of foot; Fort — strong; Fowle — someone resembling a bird; Frost — someone with an icy disposition or with a white beard or hair
Gain — crafty; Gale — cheerful person (from gaile jovial); Gallop — rash; Game, Gammon — merry or sporty; Garnon — someone with a mustache; Glew — cautious or wise; Godson — the godson of an influential person; Golfinch — nickname from the bird; Golightly — a messenger; Good — good; Gooden — someone who often uses the salutation “good evening”; Goodfellow, Goodfriend — congenial person; Grace — pleasant; Grey — someone with grey hair; Green — someone who liked wearing green; Grubb — small; Gulliver — greedy
Hand — someone with a deformed hand; Hare — a swift runner; Hart — nickname meaning stag; Hasard — a gambler; Hoare — an old man
Kay — a left handed man; Kedge — brisk, lively, (from Swedish kack, meaning bold or brisk); Keech — unflattering nickname for lumpish person; Keene — fierce, brave, proud; Kidd — frisky person; King — someone who conducts himself in a kingly manner; Knott — a thick or not shapely person
Lamb — a meek or inoffensive person; Lark — a merry person; Lawless — an unbridled and licentious man; Lawty — a trustworthy person; Lever — a fleet footed or timid person (from levre, meaning hare); Levett — nickname for wolf; Light — a happy or cheerful person, someone busy and active, someone small; Lipp — someone with large lips; Little — a small man; Littlefair — nickname for small companion; Littley — someone with small eyes; Loach — nickname from a small fresh water fish; Long, Longfellow — a tall person; Lord — someone who behaves in a lordly manner; Lovatt — nickname meaning young wolf; Lovelace — a philanderer; Lovell — nickname from lou, meaning wolf; Lovelock — a dandy; Lovely — an amiable person; Lyon — a fierce or brave warrior
Mallory — an unfortunate person; Mann — a strong or fierce man; Marvel — a person considered prodigious in some way, could be ironic; Master — someone who behaved in a masterful manner; Maufe — an untrustworthy person; Miskin — a young man, probably to distinguish someone from an older person in the same family; Monk — someone who looks like a monk; Mutton — a gentle but unimaginative person
Need — an impoverished person; New — a newcomer to an area; Newbold — someone who lived in a newly constructed dwelling; Newcombe, Newman — a new arrival in a place; Nightingale — someone with a good voice; Noel — someone with a connection to the Christmas season; Noon — a bright and cheery person
Odam — someone who has done well by marrying someone with a rich daughter
Pace — mild mannered person; Palmer — someone who had been on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; Pardoe, Purdy — nickname from someone who often said par Dieu (by God/for God’s sake); Parent — a parent or related to someone important in the community; Parslow — nickname from passer, meaning to cross; Pedley — a stealthy person; Penny — nickname from the coin; Pettifer — a tireless walker; Pettit — a small person; Pickerell — a sharp and aggressive person; Pinch — a chirpy person; Plenty — nickname for abundance; Pollard — someone with a large or unusually shaped head; Postle — nickname short for apostle; Pratt — a clever trickster; Prior — an immediate subordinate to an abbott; Puddy — someone rotund; Puttock — nickname for a greedy person
Quail — nickname from the bird, for a timorous, lecherous, or fat person; Quant — a person admired for good sense or skill or regarded as cunning or crafty; Quarry — a thickset man; Quick — a lively person
Raggett — someone whose appearance is unkempt; Raison — an intelligent person; Ram — a forceful or lusty person; Read — a person with red hair or a ruddy complexion; Revell — a boisterous person; Rich — a wealthy man; Root — a cheerful person; Rouse, Rudd, Rust — a person with red hair or a ruddy complexion; Rump — nickname for a person with a large behind; Ruth — nickname for a charitable person
Sadd — a serious or solemn person; Saffer — a greedy person; Saint — a notably pious individual; Samways — a stupid person; Sarson — someone of swarthy appearance; Savage — a wild or uncouth person; Scaife — an awkward or difficult man; Scarfe — someone resembling a cormorant, a type of bird; Scull — a bald man; Sealey — a person with a cheery disposition; Selman — a happy or fortunate man; Senior — a peasant who gave himself airs and graces; Sharp — keen, active, quick; Shear — a beautiful or radiant person; Sherwin — swift runner; Short — a person of low stature; Silver — a rich man or someone with grey hair; Snell — brisk or active person; Snow — someone with a pale complexion or very white hair; Sowden — nickname for sultan; Speak — nickname from a woodpecker; Sparrow — a small chirpy person; Spire — a tall, thin man; Spratt — a small and insignificant person; Squibb — a sarcastic person; Stack — a large well built man; Stagg — nickname from the male deer; Steel — someone considered hard or durable as steel; Stout — a brave or powerful man; Strong — a strong man; Swift — a rapid runner
Tabard — a wearer of a long sleeveless coat of heavy material; Tame — a quiet and gentle person; Tempest — someone with a blustery temperament; Thewlis — an ill mannered person; Thrussell — nickname from the bird, probably given to a cheerful person; Thumb — someone with a deformed thumb; Titmus — a small person; Todd — someone thought to resemble a fox in some way; Treacher — a devious person; Tripp — someone with an odd gait; Trunchion — a short, fat man (from thronchon, meaningpiece broken off of); Turk — a rowdy or unruly person; Twigg — a thin person
Uncle — a man who is an uncle to someone
Vaisey — a cheerful person (from enveisie, meaning playful, merry); Venture — a bold person; Verity — a truthful person; Viggars — a sturdy person; Virtue — a pious or good person; Whale — an ungainly person; White, Whithead — someone with white hair; Widdow — a widow or widower; Wight — strong-willed or brave; Wild — nickname someone of violent and undisciplined character; Wise — a wise or learned person; Wraith — someone with a violent temper
Yule — nickname for someone who was born on Christmas Day