Prior to the 11th century, surnames were never used in Europe. It was just the need to be identified for tax purposes that last names were introduced until it became prevalent. The authors stated in their book that the use of names related to how the person looked, where they lived and the nature of their work, increased during the Middle Ages as bureaucracy in society became more common. For people with the same name in one village or town, the individuals could have been identified through other characteristics.
Hundreds of names
The Dictionary of Surnames takes a look at over 100,000 last names, revealing where they originated. For example, a man with the last name Vaisey is one with a cheerful disposition while someone with a ruddy complexion or red hair ended up with the name Read. A person that moved quite fast was called Swift, while a short man was called Bass. Relating this to modern day people, Cruise, as in actor Tom Cruise’s last name, came from a person that was fierce or bold. According to the book, someone with blond hair, used to be called Blunt, could probably be the ancestor of British actress Emily Blunt.
The authors also posits that persons that stayed at home could be named after the place where they lived, while those that travel from another country or town could be identified through the place where they originally came from or they could have been named Newcombe, Newman or simply New.
The trade the people are engaged in were also sources of names, such as Chandler, Wright or Smith. Those servants of people in society’s higher echelons had adopted such names as Earl, King, Monk and Prior, depending on the person they served. However, there were times that the name of the father would be different from the name of the son, if the individual had a different characteristic or role in life or society. This meant that even negative nicknames, once these have been put down on record, became permanent.
When families became more stable, the names were handed down through generations. The practice in those times was for the eldest son to inherit titles and properties, which included the surname of the father. The wives adopted the family name of their husbands, and their children inherited their fathers’ last names.
The book collated several thousands of names over several centuries from all over Europe. One would think that the last name “Belcher” is something that indicates a person that burps all the time. However, this name, which is of French origin, actually is a combination of bel (good looking) and cher (dear), which describes someone with a lovely and fair face, contrary to the its common use nowadays. Fairfax describes someone with long, beautiful hair whereas Kay, according to the book, describes a person who is left handed.
The dictionary takes a closer look at Jewish names, and all the important languages in Europe as well as Iberian and Celtic languages.