What’s In A Name?

Have you ever wondered where names come from? Why is it that people commonly have two names? Are people with the name Armstrong always really talented weightlifters? In A Little Book of Language,  expert David Crystal delves into the history of etymology and discovers some surprising stories surrounding names we might otherwise take for granted.

Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language, a work that explores language’s myriad intricacies and quirks. Today, we focus on the origins of English names.


Most people we know don’t just have a one-word name: they have a first name and a last name, and sometimes a middle name too. But this wasn’t always the case, David Crystal explains in A Little Book of Language. In fact, a long time ago, people only had one name:

‘If we travelled back 1,000 years in Britain, we’d find that everyone had only a first name. Here are some Anglo-Saxon first names:

for men: Edwin, Altfrith, Osric, Cynwulf, Alfred, Cadmon, Oswald

for women: Waldgith, Edith, Frithild, Ethelfleda, Eadgifu, Elfrida, Hilda’

But what happens if two people have the same first name? Wouldn’t it be terribly confusing? Crystal goes on to explain that people in the past had a solution to this—and this method of differentiating names is how we came to have our last names today:

‘If we wanted to distinguish between two people with the same name, we’d have to say something like ‘Edwin the baker’ or ‘Edwin from Derby’. The idea of a proper surname developed during the Middle Ages, when people started saying things like ‘Edwin Baker’ or ‘Edwin Derby’. That’s why so many surnames are names of jobs, like these:

Potter, Smith, Cook, Taylor, Shakespeare (that is, a soldier who ‘shook a spear’)

or the names of the places where people came from:

Hall, Norman (‘man from the north’), Street, Wood

Another way of making a surname was to describe the look of a person, or how they behaved, such as ‘John Long’ as opposed to ‘John Short’. That’s where surnames like these come from:

Black, Little, Young, Rich, Armstrong, Swift

And if a man had no obvious distinguishing features, there was an easy way out. Simply call him the ‘son of’ someone or the ‘kin of’ someone. If it’s a girl, just say ‘Mary (belonging to) Thomas’ – so, Mary Thomas. That’s where surnames like these come from:

Johnson, Robertson, Watkins, Nicholas

In Iceland, they always name people in relation to their parents. If my first name is Eric, and I have a son and a daughter, they will be called Ericsson and Ericsdottir (‘Eric’s daughter’).

Sometimes we have to do some detective work before we can understand why people had a particular surname. Why was someone called Newman? Probably because he was a newcomer to an area. Why was someone called Palmer? Because he had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, carrying a palm. Why was someone called Leach? Because he was a doctor, and used leeches to treat people.’

How did your own last name come to be?

A Little Book of Language

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