What Does Your Name Mean?

Do you go by Longnose or Sheepshanks, Vuggles or Halfknight? Even if you’re a Smith or Jones, there’s likely a curiosity brewing inside of you about the origin and evolution of your surname. My surname, Tickle, hails from the town of Tickhill in the old West Riding of Yorkshire and is not as rare as one might think.

Thanks to a grant of £835,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, this curiosity may soon be satiated. Launching in April at the University of the West of England (UWE), a research project into UK family names will provide a publicly accessible, online database offering meanings and origins for up to 150,000 current surnames.

Engaging with this database may reveal connections to an aristocratic history, or it may pinpoint the Middle Age’s decision to name the local squire’s preferred pig-keeper after you. Though many surname dictionaries exist, principal investigator Richard Coates, linguistics professor, claims these resources are unreliable in interpreting old forms of a name. He also highlighted the problem of the suggested interpretation not aligning with known familial history. Alongside Dr. Patrick Hanks, collaborating lexicographer, Coates and three researchers will seek out the names that have slipped through the cracks by scrutinising old county rolls, medieval archives, and parish registries.

To create a profile for each name, they will gather information on the name’s spelling variations, the time and place of its first appearance, frequency, and social and regional distribution. Coates explains that originally, people did not concern themselves with surnames. They came to be out of the necessity to protect inherited wealth. The wealthy required a way to ensure the fortune would pass to the correct Edward, Henry, or William, with their wealth also being taxable. “There were far more given names in Anglo-Saxon England than in the 12th and 13th centuries. At the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, only the aristocracy have second names. As the number of given names reduces, so the need for distinctive second names grows.”

Once second naming became fashionable, aristocratic naming patterns trickled down to the lower classes rather rapidly throughout most of England. Surnames came about during the late Middle Ages for most of the UK, with the trend spreading from south to north; although, in certain regions such as Wales and Lancashire, their prevalence is seen much later.

Four classifications of surname exist. The first identifies an individual by their relation to another; for instance, a person adopting their father’s given name resulted in Jackson or just Jack, and in Gaelic Scotland, Macdonald. The second identifies location or profession; Coates’s name means “cottages” in Middle English and originated from the place name Cotes in his grandfather’s ancestral county of Staffordshire. The third way surnames are formed is by description, often relating to hair or skin tone; examples include White, Short, Armstrong, or Russell. Finally, occupation-based surnames such as Naylor (a nail maker), Baxter (a female baker), Wheelwright (a wheel maker), and Leech (a doctor) are common.

Decoding how surnames changed with variations in location and spelling is a task that will be undertaken by the research team. Moreover, Coates notes that women have not always adhered to taking their husband’s name. “Then there’s the question of illegitimacy. In one sense, it wouldn’t matter what an illegitimate child were called if there was nothing to inherit, but if you and your mother were abandoned, an identifying surname would be crucial to establishing which parish was responsible for paying to look after you." Lastly, Coates mentions that the funniest surname he came across was inappropriate for print in a family newspaper.

The peak moment in this type of investigation occurs when you realize that you have accumulated adequate information to arrive at a conclusion that has never been reached before about how a particular name was acquired, according to Coates.

Are there any surnames whose origins the team might never be able to uncover?

With a grin, Coates acknowledges that some will inevitably be incomprehensible. If the team can account for each name that has more than 100 people, they would be satisfied. Even better would be if they could account for many names with fewer than 100 people.

What about names such as Lickerish that seem quite odd?

The names on the list below all had no more than 200 people with them in 1881. It is uncertain if any are still in use today.

Bolus which is Old Norse for ‘poleaxe’

Champflower which is from a village in Normandy

Gwatkin which is apparantly a welsh-influenced form of Watkin or ‘Little Walter, from the Herefordshire area

Halfknight which may refer to someone who held half of a knight’s fee, or was simply intended as an insult.

Lickerish which means ‘Randy’

Marmion which is Old French for ‘monkey’

McCambridge which is Anglicised Gaelic for ‘son of Ambrose’

Pitchfork which is a rare variant of Pitchford, a place in Shropshire

Prettyjohn which is a variant of Prester John, a legendry oriental ruler from the 12th century

Puddifoot which is ‘Fat Vat’

Slorance which is Scots and has an unknown meaning

Stiddolph which is from the Old English ‘hard’, ‘wolf’


  • oscarcunningham

    Oscar Cunningham is a 41-year-old educational blogger and professor. He has been writing about education for over 10 years, and is known for his expertise on online learning and digital media. Cunningham is also a frequent speaker on these topics, and has given talks at a range of universities around the world. In his spare time, he also enjoys playing the violin and running.

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