When People Began to Use Last Names

Our last names tell about our ancestors hundreds of years ago.


Long ago, when there were fewer people, all anyone needed was one name. Eventually, that became confusing. Different men had the same name.

“John? Which John do you mean? John the miller, or John the young man?”

People spoke this way for centuries before these “tags” became the names John Miller and John Youngman.

In the year 1000 AD, the British Isles had only about 2 million people.
This includes the UK and Ireland.

As an American, I tried to imagine this and looked for a comparable US state. I found that New Mexico is the same area, and it now has the same population as the British Isles did in 1000 A.D.

In 1066, William the Conqueror led the Norman invasion of England. Europeans started to go to England, and the population grew. People began to use last names. (In France, this taking of last names happened earlier, about 1000 AD.)

Ruins around an archway at Corfe Castle, Dorset, England. Tall ruin against a brilliant blue sky.
Ruins of Corfe Castle, Dorset, England

In the four hundred years or so after the Norman Conquest of 1066, people in the British Isles began to adopt last names. Their family members and relatives would have the same, or similar names. Some countries and regions resisted longer.

Often it was the knights and gentry who were the first to take last names. Knights, of course, are addressed as “sir.” Last names are also called surnames, which came from “sir”name.

The ruins of Corfe Castle, Dorset, England. Castle is on a green hill with blue sky.
The ruins of Corfe Castle

Our names tell about our ancestors in the Middle Ages, writes William Dodgson Bowman in The Story of Surnames and Geneology.

  • Jack London’s ancestors were from…you know.
  • Playwright Noel Coward’s ancestors were cow herders.

There were four main categories of names, Bowman writes, giving these examples:

  • Where they lived. Street, Hill, or the name of their town
  • Who their father was: John’s son became Johnson
  • Nicknames like Wolf, Oldman, Goodman, Brown, Strong
  • Their occupation or position
The tall keep of Trim Castle, Ireland, is largely intact. Flags fly from the towers. Blue sky.
Trim Castle, County Meath, Ireland

Occupational last names are fun! I have been noticing them for many years. My dad told me about them after he explained why our last name was Wilson (son of Wil). It took me a while, but here is what I came up with on my own. I have known people with most of these last names:

  • Baker
  • Miller
  • Smith (blacksmith, silversmith, etc.)
  • Sexton (church custodian, even today)
  • Hostler, Ostler (takes care of horses)
  • Sawyer (saws wood)
  • Mason
  • Cooper (makes barrels)
  • Clark (clerk)
  • Knight

Bowman has more, including:

  • Shepherd
  • Cook
  • Chandler (makes candles)
  • Fletcher (makes arrows, a more common occupation in the Middle Ages!)

Would you like to tell us about your name, or that of a family member?