This look into the origins of many common last names offers a peek into the past, and might even be some help in tracking down your own family genealogy.
We went way back in history for this article: it’s an excerpt from the book English Surnames: Essays on Family Nomenclature, Historical, Etymological And Humorous by Mark Antony Lower, published in 1842.
While the original text was published by a company in London, the information below is more relevant than ever, given that the world’s population was merely 1.2 billion when the book was written, while the earth holds more than 7 billion now people now.
Surnames derived from personal and mental qualities
These seem to form one of the most obvious sources of surnames, and a prolific source it has been.
Nothing would be more natural, at the first assumption of surnames, than for a person of dark complexion to take the name of Black or Blackman, a tawny one that of Browne, and a pale one that of Whate or Whiteman. So, doubtless, originated Rufus, Roux, Rousseau, and Russel (which seem only modifications of one word signifying red), Redman, Pink, Tawney, and perhaps Scarlett.
As no person ever had a green face (however green in other respects), we must refer the common surname that represents that color to a local origin; John atte the Greene, Roger a’Green, etc., being among the most familiar names of that class.
The color of the hair also led to a numerous train of these hereditary soubriquets (for they certainly are nothing else): hence Hoare, Grissel, Grey, Blacklocke, Whitelocke, Silverlocke, Fairhaire, Whithair, Blound, that is, fair-haired; Fairfax, that is, fair locks; Pigot, that is, speckled; Blackbeard, Whitehead, Blackhead, Redhead, etc.
But it was not from the head alone that names of this description were taken, for we have, in respect of other personal qualities, our Longs and our Shorts; our Langmans, Longmans, and Longfellows; our Biggs and our Broads; our Greats and our Smalls; our Strongs and our Weaklys; our Strongmans, Strongers, Strongfellows, Strongi’ th’arms, and Armstrongs; our Littles and our Lowes, and even our Littlers and our Lowers (!) our Goodbodies and our Freebodies; our Groses and our Thynnes; our Swifts and our Slowrnans, Speeds, Quicks, and Quicklys; our Plaines and our Prettys; our Larges and our Pettys; our Lovelys and our Plainers; our Fatts and our Stouts; our Darkmans and our Lillywhites, our Lightfoots and our Heavisides, with many more whose meaning is less obvious.
Among these may be noticed: Starkie, strong of body; Fiest, broad-footed; Crumpe, crooked; Mewet, one who speaks inwardly; Lizar, a leprous person; Morphew, a scrofulous person; Michel, great; Snell, agile. Bel, when affixed to LE, is from the French, fair; Fleet, swift; Hale, healthful; Holder, thin; Carr and Ker, stout.
The very common name of Reed, Read or Reid, is an old spelling of RED (a name given, probably, in reference to complexion), thus Chaucer:
“And floures both white and rede;”
and Sir John Maundevile, speaking of the Red Sea, says: “That See is not more reed than another see; but in some places thereof is the gravelle reede: and therefore men clepen it the Rede Sea.”
Many names of Welsh or Gaelic origin, common in England, have similar meanings, thus: More, great; Begg, little; Roy, red; Duff, Dove, Dow, Dee, black; Bane (whence belike Baynes), white; Vaughan, little; Moel, or Mole, bald; Gam, crooked; Fane, slender; Grimm, strong; Gough, red; Gwynne, white; and Greig and Gregg, hoarse.
The ancients had names of cognate significations, as among the Greeks, Pyrrhus, Chlorus, Chryses, and among the Romans, Candidus, Rutilus, Longus, Paulus, etc. with many others indicative of personal qualities or peculiarities.
Mental and moral qualities reflected in surnames
Among the names indicative of mental or moral qualities, we have our Hardys and our Cowards; our Meeks and our Moodys; our Bolds and our Slyes; our Livelys and our Sullens; our Eagers and our Dulmans; our Gifords or liberal ones, and our Curteises. CURTEIS I take to be an ancient spelling of the adjective courteous. Chaucer says of his “yong squier”–
“Curteis he was, gentil and affable.”
Nor must we overlook our Wilds and our Sangwines; our Merrys and our Sobers; our Nobles and our Willeys, or favorable ones; our Blythes and our Cleeres; our Sternes and our Bonnys; our Godmans and our Godlimans; our Wakes or Watchfuls; our Terrys or tearful ones; our Forwards and our Wises, our Wooralls or worth-alls; our Aylwins, or beloved of all; our Proudes and our Humbles; our Sharpes and our Blunts; our Sweets and our Sweetmans; our Illmans and our Freemans; our Wisemans and our Booklesses; our Stables and our Hasties; our Gentles and our Lawlesses; our Giddys and our Carelesses; our Sadds and our Merrymans; our Innocents and our Peerlesses; our Luckies and our Faithfuls, our Gaudys and our Decents; our Gallants and our Trustys; our Dearloves and our Trueloves; our Truemans and our Thankfuls; our Brisks and our Doolittles; our Dears and our Darlings; our Closes and our Allfrees; our Brightmans and our Flatmans; and, to close this long catalogue, our Goods, Goodmans, Goodchilds, Goodfellows, our Thoroughgoods, Allgoods, Bests, Perfects, and Good enoughs; and, what is very extraordinary indeed, our Toogoods!
To these (from less obvious origins) add, if you will, Stunt (Stunts, Saxon) angry, sullen; taken substantively it means a fool, by no means an enviable designation, but far from applicable to all who bear it; Widmer (wide and fame, Saxon) widely renowned; Hubbard (Saxon.) disposed to joy and gladness; Joyce, the same; Hogarth (Dutch) high-natured, generous; Shire, clear; Baud, pleasant; Rush, subtle; Barrat, cunning, etc.
Very much do these resemble the Agathias, Andragathins, Sophocles, Eubulus, Prudentius, Pius, Constans, etc. of the classical ancients. Indeed there is scarcely any kind of names now in use that has not its prototype among the Greeks and Romans.
Personal strength or courage
To this list of names from personal and mental qualities, I may appropriately adjoin such as had their origin in some feat of personal strength or courage, as Armstrong (already mentioned), All-fraye, Langstaff, Wagstaff, Shakestaff, Shakespeare, or, as Mr. C. Knight will have it, Shakspere) and Bickerstaff. Also Box-all, Tire buck, Turnbull and Breakapear, which was the original name of our countryman, Pope Hadrian the Fourth.
“Harman,” observes Verstegan, “should rightly be Heartman, to wit, a man of heart or courage.” It also signifies a soldier or constable, in both which avocations “heart, or courage” is necessary. Holman may be Whole man, a man of undeniable valour–a man, every inch of him. Analogous to this etymology is that of the patrial noun Alman or German, which, according to Verstegan, “is as much to say as ALL or WHOLLY a MAN,” attributed to that nation “in regard of their great manliness and valor.”
There are certain surnames which I have the greatest difficulty in assigning to any particular class. Gladman probably belongs to those derived from mental peculiarities, but Deadman is a complete nondescript — the most absurd appellation ever given to living creature. I know several people of this name.