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Last names are passed down to us from ancestors. In fact, they weren't widely used before the Norman conquest in 1066. After the conquest, population grow continuously, and people found it necessary to be more specific when they were talking about somebody else. Thus appeared many of our current surnames. So far, there have been perhaps 45,000 different English surnames, and most had their origins as one of these SEVEN types.
Occupational names identified people according to their job or position in society. "Thomas Carpenter" indicated that the man worked with wood for a living while someone called "Knight" bore a sword. There are many occupational names, such as Archer, Baker, Brewer, Butcher, Carter, Clark, Cooper, Cook, Dyer, Farmer, Faulkner, Fisher, Fuller, Gardener, Glover, Head, Judge, Mason, Parker, Potter, Sawyer, Slater, Smith, Taylor, Thatcher, Turner, Weaver, Woodman, and many more.
Occupational names also gave a clue about for whom a servant worked. A man named Vickers might have been a servant to Mr. Vicker, while someone called Williams might have served or been adopted by a William.
In the medieval time when there weren't professional theaters, craft guilds put on "mystery plays," which told Bible stories and had a call-and-response style of singing. A participant's surname, such as King, Lord, Virgin, or Death, reflected his or her role and some played a particular role for life and passed it down to their descendants.
Some names, usually adjectives, were based on nicknames that described a person's characteristic, such as Short, Long, Little and Black, White, Green that described a person's size and coloring. Some were named by their character traits, such as Stern, Strong, and Swift. If someone was called peacock, he might be considered vain.
The last name may point to the place where a person was born, lived, worked, or owned land. It usually came from the name of a house, farm, hamlet, town or county, for example, Bedford, Burton, Hamilton, Hampshire, Sutton and more. Writer Jack London's stepfather may come from London.
Those descended from landowners may have taken the name of their holdings, castle, manor, or estate as their surnames, for example, Ernle, Staunton, and Windsor, which was the surname George V adopted for the British royal family.
Some surnames may come from a geographical feature of the landscape, examples including Bridge, Brooks, Bush, Camp, Fields, Forest, Greenwood, Grove, Hill, Lake, Moore, Perry, Stone, Wold, Wood, Woodruff and more. Author Margaret Atwood may be descended from someone who lived "at the wood."
Patronymic surnames came from a male given name, and examples are Benson (the son of Ben), Davis, Dawson, Evans, Harris, Harrison, Jackson, Jones, Nicholson, Richardson, Robinson, Rogers, Simpson, Stephenson, Thompson, Watson, and Wilson.
Matronymic ones are derived from a female given name, including Madison (from Maud), Molson (from Moll, for Mary), Marriott (from Mary), Emmott (from Emma) and more.
Some last names honored a patron. Kilpatrick was a follower of Patrick. Hickman was Hick's man (Hick is a nickname for Richard).
Wondering the story behind your family name? Try plugging your family name into the Ancestry Last Names Meanings and Origins widget.