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A number of common English surnames are the same as common English given names, with the addition of an "S." Examples are Peters, Daniels, Michaels, Matthews, Roberts, Phillips, Isaacs, Williams, etc.

What is the root cause of this phenomenon? Is it related to the formation of surnames from patronyms? Most of that same list also has common variations ending in "-son" (Peterson, Danielson, Robertson, etc.)

Note: I did a Google search around this question, but the results all had to do with pluralizing a surname, or making it possessive.

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    Most likely the s is there for the same reason as -son - the "original" Tom Peters, Dick Peters, and Harry Peters were called that because they were Peter's sons, and sometimes people needed to distinguish between Tom Peters (son of Peter) and another Tom (William's; Tom the son of William). Commented May 18, 2016 at 15:15
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    You can sometimes hear people talk like this today at family reunions where the grandkids share a name. "Tell Tom it's time to light the fire." "Which Tom?" "Peter's Tom." Commented May 18, 2016 at 15:23
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    @FumbleFingers - That would be my theory as well, but I'm hoping one of the etymological wizards here can provide support to confirm or deny. Commented May 18, 2016 at 15:57
  • @Chris: I was being somewhat "tichy" (tongue-in-cheek). I'd say the explanation is a bit of a nobrainer. But you might like to compare this "Saxon genitive" usage with, say Sainsbury or Sainsbury[']s used to identify the UK supermarket. In that case, not even the company itself seems to have a clear idea whether to append the s or not (though I don't think they ever include the actual apostrophe on, say, their delivery vehicle livery). Commented May 18, 2016 at 16:27
  • I have seen a family of immigrants from Finland with the surname Isaacs. That appeared to be taken from an abbreviation of the patronymic, which was Isaacsson. It was very common in Finnish church records to abbreviate the (Swedish) patronymic by omitting the -son.
    – Robb
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 19:54

2 Answers 2

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According to Mckinley's A History of British Surnames, the major rise of surnames derived from a personal name with the addition of -s or -es was among the "peasant" classes in the late 13th century. These people didn't have hereditary surnames of their own, so the implication is that they adopted their master's name as befitted their social status as they were bonded to him. If you follow that logic, it primarily signified whose property they were as much as anything, although the passage in that link doesn't wholly explore this.

There was then a second wave of Welsh -s names that appeared more widespread in the British Isles in the 16th century. Together with the earlier English 'mutation', that generated most of the -s names we see today.

So they're not quite patronyms, then, but close.

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    So "John Peters" would have essentially belonged to (Lord?) Peter. Fascinating, I'm glad I asked. Commented May 18, 2016 at 19:52
  • So surnames of this type being extremely common in Dutch and (northern) German is merely an accident? Commented May 18, 2016 at 22:34
  • @reinierpost It's beyond both the scope of ELU and my Dutch/German, but I suspect that it's simply parallel evolution due to the exchange of people around (northern) Europe at that time. If nothing else, compare the English genitive for a proper noun (William's car) with the Dutch (Henk’s auto) or German (Heinz' Auto). Commented May 19, 2016 at 8:21
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One of the better places to look is with The Guild of One Name Studies a web-site used by genealogists etc.

I couldn't find Peters (it appears not to be one of the names for which they supply a possible etymology). However one that falls into the category is Phillips which you will note from the etymology they deem to be patronymic.

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  • You seem to have posted this twice. Commented May 18, 2016 at 22:08
  • @Azor-Ahai Thanks for pointing that out.
    – WS2
    Commented May 18, 2016 at 22:46

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