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Why do we have a surname?

Why do we have surnames?

Surnames in England originated in the 11th century under William I (William the Conqueror) when he became King in 1066.

Prior to this people only used first names.

Celia Heritage has written an interesting article here about how surnames were used to indicate a connection with the land and for the owners to feel more “secure”.

This mainly refers to the landowning classes.

So, for others, e.g., people who had trades, surnames were fluid and changed from generation to generation, or even as a person changed his job – “John Blacksmith” may have become “John Farrier” as his trade developed.

But by 1400, surnames in England had mostly settled down and become hereditary.


The origins of a surname

A surname could be based on:

  • the place you lived e.g. Dale
  • or a particular place e.g. Bakewell
  • what you did e.g. Smith
  • one of your characteristics e.g. red hair could become Redhead
  • you could also be a ‘son of’ e.g. Smithson. Jones is actually a derivative of “John’s son”

This site gives some good explanations as to origins


Another thing to be aware of is spelling.

It’s only in the relatively recent past that spellings have been standardised. Samuel Johnson published his “Dictionary of the English Language” in 1755.

So, my surname could be Cox, Coxe, Cock, Cocks…


What does your surname mean?

If you’d like to know more about the meaning of your surname, try this surname checker:

If you click on places, then you can filter by England and it will show the numbers by county. In my case, I know my ancestors came from Somerset and it’s still very popular there. In the 1881 census it was the 8th most common surname in Somerset and it’s 13th as of 2014.

Another place to look is

And if you’d like to find out more about Cox try this Wikipedia article:

How popular is your surname?

As most British people know the most common surnames in the UK are Smith and Jones however did you know Williams is number 3? Read more in this article from The Independent newspaper.

My own surname, Cox, is the 62nd most popular surname in the UK (as of 2014) which could make finding my ancestors difficult, however I have quite a few family records and can actually trace this back to my second oldest Cox ancestor, William Cox, in Taunton in Somerset in 1664. I am lucky that there is a baptismal record for him on 29 May 1664. He is son of William Cox however details of him are sketchy, record keeping at the time was not extensive.

william cox christening example of surname

What have your discovered about your surname?

Please share your findings in the comments below. And if you’re having difficulties finding people I would be happy to investigate for you.



This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Jenni

    Hi Emma this looks fab like your logo too. I’m very interested in my mums side of the family Freethy many in Cornwall were I’m really drawn to. Have got quite a bit of info gathered already. My Dad was a Wiggins Oxfordshire I think.
    Good luck with your new venture – really exciting see you next meeting.

    1. Emma Cox

      Thanks Jenni. I have loads of information about my own family tree with Somerset, Devon and Cornish ancestors, lots around Saltash.

  2. Mark meergans

    Well I’m a Seagoose

  3. Christopher

    My name is Christopher David Cox(Ohio), my father was David Raymond Cox(Ohio), his father my grandfather was Raymond Carl Cox (from Georgia), my great grandfather was Samuel/Samual Cox married to Sara/Sarah/Sarrah??

    1. rocrej

      Hi Christopher – do you know if your Cox ancestors came from England? When and from where?

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