Where does my surname come from?

Jonathan Scott picks the best websites for guidance and first-step facts on researching your family name

1603, An English blacksmith using an anvil in a forge. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Generally, there are four main categories of surname.


They may derive from an occupation, a place, a nickname, or a relationship with a father (such as Johnson, meaning ‘son of John’).

Investigating the origins of one’s own surname is often a natural diversion for family historians.

For ‘one-namers’, however, the surname takes over. You can study its etymology and history, patterns in distribution, and movements across borders and boundaries.

Using DNA research, meanwhile, allows you to link up with namesakes from across the globe.

1. Guild of One-Name Studies

Guild of One Name Studies

The guild’s website has useful public material, alongside resources that are restricted to members.

Click ‘Studies > Surname A–Z’ on the site’s menu bar to explore the list of 8,000 surnames that members are currently researching.

It links to external websites from well-established one-name societies and groups working on individual micro- or macro-level projects.

The ‘Resources’ section includes two free indexes – Modern Newspapers (1950 to date), and Marriages of the World (up to 80 years ago) – alongside several more if you decide to become a member.

The detailed DNA testing guide explains how it can be incorporated into your research. You’ll also find good introductions to launching your own one-name study.

Joining the guild costs between £18 and £33 depending on when you sign up and the length of your membership.
2. Your Family History

Your Family History

An excellent beginners’ tool for researchers with interests in England and Wales, this website allows you to quickly and easily follow distribution patterns through census data.

You can either type a name into the search engine, or browse the collection alphabetically. While not exhaustive, the site certainly has a wide spread. Entries normally include a basic etymology as well as colour-graded distribution maps – you can click on the different census years to see how these patterns shift across the decades.

Scroll down to more statistics, showing common professions associated with the name, most frequent forenames and the popularity of different variants.
3. Surname Mapping Guide

ISOGG surnames

Many one-namers have taken to genetic genealogy with gusto. If you’re still getting to grips with it, then the wiki from the International Society of Genetic Genealogy will come in handy. This particular page is useful for finding out more about surname mapping, and seeing examples of DNA surname projects. Surname maps are generally created using sources such as censuses, electoral registers and telephone directories.
4. Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England

Anglo-Saxon England

If you’re seeking the earliest written references of particular names then you could try the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England.

PASE lists individuals until the end of the 11th century, recorded in chronicles, saints’ lives, charters, libri vitae, inscriptions, the Domesday Book and coins.

Similar resources include People of Medieval ScotlandThe Soldier in Late Medieval England, and the recently released Stuart pamphleteers database.
5. Ancestry Guide to Surnames

Ancestry surnames

Here you can access data, derivations and distribution patterns. It works pretty well, as you’d expect from Ancestry, and you don’t need to subscribe to use it.

I tested it with a number of surnames to see if I could trip it up. Searching for the Northern Irish name ‘Mcquillan’, for example, we learn that it’s the “Anglicized form of Gaelic Mac Uighilín – ‘son of Huguelin’ – a double diminutive of the Norman personal name Hugh”, and that it comes from an important family in Co. Antrim.

A really obscure name, however, results in generic copy about the history of surnames, alongside a map showing census findings.
Go further

6. British Surnames

At time of writing ‘Smith’ was top of the homepage’s list of ‘most viewed’ names from the past seven days. Click the name, and we learn that it comes from the Anglo-Saxon Smitan, to smite or strike.

7. Connected Histories

Similar to the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, this website enables you to search for names within British sources back to 1500.

8. DNA Surname Projects

This page from Family Tree DNA is useful for finding ongoing DNA surname projects.

9. Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland

Find out about the research that went into this 2016 behemoth, available in print (£400) and as an ebook. You can access the text digitally through some institution-level subscriptions.

10. Society of Genealogists

Search indexes and the society catalogue to see what holdings it has for a surname of interest, including Victorian volumes and pedigrees.

11. Surname Society

This online group allows members to share their discoveries, and you can find out if members are researching your surname for free.

12. Surname Studies

The Guild of One-Name Studies sponsors this interesting site from the late Philip Dance.

13. Surnames of England and Wales


This surname search tool is extracted from an Office for National Statistics database.