Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Lesson 1: How Did Surnames Come to Be?

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Last names as we know them now originated in the Middle Ages

Last names as we know them now originated in the Middle Ages from people’s occupations, where they lived, their father’s first name, or even their appearance or disposition.

In the early years of the Middle Ages, most people in Europe lived in small farming villages. Everyone knew his neighbors, and there was little need for last names. But as the population expanded and the towns grew, a need arose to find ways to differentiate between two people who shared the same first name.

Because the British were among the first Europeans to settle in North America, many modern American surnames can be traced back to medieval England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Common adjectives used as bynames often referred to size - such as Little, Short, or Long—or to hair color or complexion—such as White, Black, or Red (which evolved into Reed). Sometimes, an adjective was combined with a noun to form a byname, like Longfellow or Blackbeard. Names such as Stern and Stout (meaning stout-hearted, not fat) described temperament, while Drinkwater implied someone with a powerful thirst. John Peacock must have been rather vain! A name might also refer to social status, such as Squire, Knight, or Bachelor. And Palmer described a pilgrim who had returned from the Holy Land. (It was traditional for such pilgrims to bring back a palm as a sort of souvenir.)

Names derived from the Gaelic tongue are less easily deciphered by modern English-speakers: Cameron means “crooked nose,” Kennedy means “ugly head,” and Connolly means “valiant.”

Guiding Questions

  • Why did surnames or last names develop?
  • What do they tell us about the person who bears the name?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe how and why surnames came to be.

Preparation Instructions

Become familiar with the materials used in the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark websites you plan to use. Download and duplicate charts used in the activities.

You can find additional background information about surnames at the following sites:

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Descriptive Surnames
  • Brainstorm with the students about how surnames might have originated. Have them envision a situation in which there are two boys named John, or two girls named Mary. If they have no last names, how might their friends refer to them to distinguish one from the other? Possibilities would include physical descriptions (John with the freckles); place of residence (Mary, who lives in the woods); hobby (John, the hockey player); and names of parents (Mary, the daughter of Archibald). Explain that these are the very criteria used by people in medieval times to create second names (called bynames). In later years, as the population grew, certain bynames became permanent family names, or surnames.
  • Make a list on the board of some common modern surnames that might describe a person's appearance or character. Perhaps there are some good examples in your own classroom.
  • Access Surname Origin List available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. Instruct the students to look up the following names: Armstrong, Black, Fairchild, Giddy, Green, Merry, Noble, Sharp, Truman, and White. The meanings of the names can be added to the chart (Descriptive Surnames) available in .pdf format. To find a particular name, click the letter at the top of the page. This will access a section of an alphabetical list of surnames containing the name being sought.
Activity 2. Patronymic Surnames
  • Access Surname Origin List available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. Instruct the students to look up the following names: Armstrong, Black, Fairchild, Giddy, Green, Merry, Noble, Sharp, Truman, and White. The meanings of the names can be added to the chart (Descriptive Surnames) available in .pdf format. To find a particular name, click the letter at the top of the page. This will access a section of an alphabetical list of surnames containing the name being sought.

Another form of surname was derived from the name of a father or grandfather. This is called a patronymic surname. In medieval England, there were only about 20 popular first names (for males), the most common being John. Thomas, the son of John, might be known as Thomas Johnson (John's son). Thomas, the son of Richard, became Thomas Richardson (Richard's son) or simply Thomas Richards (Richard's). Since the second name was applied to an individual, it would change from generation to generation: if John Williamson had a son, Edward, he would be called Edward Johnson (John's son), and Edward's son, Thomas, would be Thomas Edwardson.

  • Sometimes slight changes in spelling occurred, as in Hughes (son of Hugh), Harris (son of Harry), Anderson (son of Andrew), Henderson (son of Henry), Nixon (son of Nicholas), Simpson (son of Simon), Patterson (son of Patrick), Tennyson (son of Dennis), and Henderson (son of Henry). Jones, the Welsh version of Johnson, became the most common surname in Wales. After the Norman invasion of England in 1066 (Normandy is a part of France), some people took a byname beginning with Fitz (derived from fils, which means “son” in French). An example is Fitzgerald.
  • In Scotland and Ireland, bynames often began with Mac or Mc (Gaelic for “son of” or “descendant of”), such as MacDonald.
  • Others living in Ireland had second names beginning with O' (meaning “grandson of”), such as O'Reilly.
  • Certain names ended in -kin and were a diminutive of the father's name. Examples of this type of byname are Tomkin (Little Thomas), Wilkin (Little William), Perkin (Little Peter), Bartlett (Little Bartholomew), and Hewitt (little Hugh).

And what about women's names? In the male-dominated society of medieval Europe, a girl simply took her father's surname (Richard's daughter was Mary Richardson) until she married. Then she took her husband's surname (Mary, wife of William Johnson, became Mary Johnson).

  • Instruct the students working in pairs to fill out the chart (Patronymic Names) available in .pdf format. If you are working with younger students, you might prefer to make a list of the six types of patronymic names on the board and then call upon volunteers to suggest examples of each type.

Assessment

Extending The Lesson

Selected EDSITEment Websites

Internet Public Library

The Basics

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Medieval World (500 CE-1500 CE)
Skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
Authors
  • Suzanne Art (AL)