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.”
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:
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.
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).
2 class periods