Many surnames in English come from occupations, presumably those of the progenitor or his kin, such as

  • Baker
  • Miller
  • Chandler
  • Smith

Some reflect lineal descent, such as

  • Jameson
  • O'Reilly
  • MacGregor

Some reflect clan location, for example

  • Windsor
  • York
  • London

My question is, where do the rest come from? Some names are homonyms of color, of other nouns, or of terms that have no obvious current common meaning.

So what are the principal sources of surnames (perhaps the top two or three) other than occupation, location or parentage? And why are colors or common nouns (other than occupations) used as surnames?

  • It could well be that there are different answers to this question in different parts of the English-speaking world, e.g. UK v. US, but also does the Indian sub-continent have completely different derivations? Do you have any particular region in mind?
    – TrevorD
    Commented Aug 17, 2013 at 14:26
  • @TrevorD I guess I would limit it to Great Britain because the key time period is when these names were adopted, probably before the British diaspora.
    – bib
    Commented Aug 17, 2013 at 14:29
  • The NSA and our government...
    – Noah
    Commented Aug 17, 2013 at 14:44
  • 1
    This is only a guess, so not an answer, but I'd think the next most common category are personal characteristics of the first person to take the name: "Long", "Small", "Beard" ...
    – The Photon
    Commented Aug 17, 2013 at 18:51

1 Answer 1


I think that you hit the majority of the names in: occupation, lineage, personal traits, and location.

A quick review of any geneology site finds last names related to: Peerage (Earl, Duke, Knight, and Graff [a mainland name]); Housing style (Barnes, Abbey, etc.); Nicknames (Baines=bones), which is similar to personal traits; and Geographic traits (Buckley-"bucca" goat and "leah" clearing; Hathaway: from the Middle English hathe "heath" and weye "way").

Even if you trace non-native names to their roots, they often seem to fall into similar categories: Moore (from Old French more meaning "Moor"), Mayer (mayor, from Middle English mair), or Marshall (derived from Middle English mareschal "a marshal", ultimately derived from Germanic marah "horse" and scalc "servant"[reference]).

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