Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Lesson 2: What's In A Name? British Surnames Derived from Places


The Lesson


Last names as we know them now originated

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.

Over half of all English surnames used today are derived from the names of places where people lived. This type is known as a locative surname. For example, a man called John who lived near the marsh might be known as John Marsh. John who lived in the dell was called John Dell. Other examples are John Brook, John Lake, and John Rivers. Some names combined two words, such as Underhill (someone who lived at the foot of the hill) and Hightower (dweller of the high tower).

  • Many names had the following endings: -ford (the crossing place in a river or stream), -fort (a fortification), -field (an open area where fairs were held), -brook, -wood, and -well. Ashwood, for example, would describe someone who lived in a wood of ash trees.

Certain locative surnames are less clear in meaning, since they are derived from earlier forms of English. For example, who would guess that Dunlop means “a muddy hill!” Below are a few helpful clues for determining the meanings of this type of name.

  • The prefix atte meant “at the.” It appeared in names like Attewood and Attewater, which later evolved as Atwood and Atwater.
  • Frequently used place nouns were den (valley), beck (brook), more (river bank), and adder (stream). Beckford referred to someone who lived near the crossing place of a brook.
  • The endings -ton, -ham, -wick, -stow, and -stead meant “farm” or “town.” So the name Denton (den plus ton) referred to someone who lived in a town or farm in a valley.
  • Other commonly used place endings were: -don (a hill), -bury (a fortification), -leigh or -ley (a clearing), and -chester (site of an ancient Roman fort).

In some cases, the preposition "of" was simply added to the name of a town to form a person's byname. Examples are John of York and William of Orange.

Guiding Questions

What are locative surnames?

Learning Objectives

Students will develop an understanding of British surnames derived from locations and learn some of the more common names still prevalent today.

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. Locative Surnames
  • After discussing the above information with your students (you might wish to list certain items on the board), return to the Surname Origin List. Instruct the students, working in pairs, to look up the meanings of the names on the chart (Locative Surnames) also available in .pdf format.
Student Activity:
Name Meaning
1. Armstrong 1.
2. Black 2.
3. Fairchild 3.
4. Giddy 4.
5. Green 5.
6.Merry 6.
7. Noble 7.
8. Sharp 8.
9. Truman 9.
10. White 10.


  • Review the key concepts covered in this activity. Call upon students to suggest place nouns commonly used as roots or suffixes of British locative surnames. Then have each student write down a list of five locative surnames not previously mentioned.
  • As a follow-up, you might play “What's My Name?” Call upon a student to draw a figure on the board to illustrate one of the names on his list. For example, he might draw a picture of a church on a hill to represent “Churchill.” Whoever guesses the name gets to go next. Continue the game until everyone has had a turn.

Extending The Lesson

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Time Required

1-2 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)
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Suzanne Art (AL)