Blog Article

Common English surname types explored

Common English surname types explored

Date: 24th June 2021

In our previous blog post, the My Story Told team found out some interesting facts behind Welsh surnames and their origins. This research got us thinking about the variety of different surnames across the whole UK, and the origins and stories behind each of them.

This time we’re taking a look into some of the most common recorded English surnames, and where these names originally came from. Can you find some meaning behind your name by looking through our list?

Brown - Characteristic Surname

Quite predictably, the origin of this surname was simply associated with the colour brown, often given to those with dark hair, skin, eye colour or clothing. In contrast, White would refer to a fair haired/blonde person. Characteristic or appearance-based surnames can be seen in many instances throughout England such as Short, Little, Wise and many more.

Wood - Referring to an area

This surname originated in England, but also has Scottish origin, and would have been given to someone who lived or worked in a forest or wooded area. For example, famous Canadian author Margaret Atwood is likely a descendent of somebody who used to live “at the wood”. First records of this name appear in England in the late 1200s.
Wood is known as a topographic surname, as it is derived from a place name. There are many examples of this seen in modern day surnames such as Hill, Brooks, Waters and more.


Blackburn, Harrington, York - Specific Town or City Names

Although the examples listed above do not actually make it onto the top 10 most common surnames, there are a huge range of different surnames that refer specifically to an area such as a town or city. People with the surname Blackburn would have likely descended from ancestors who originally lived in that area, although they may now be all over the world!


Smith - Occupational Surname


There are many English surnames that are very clearly linked to job roles and occupations such as Baker, Potter, Weaver, and aforementioned Smith. The surname Smith would refer to a blacksmith, which was a very common occupation in previous generations and was required in every single town - which is why Smith is number one on the ranking of popular English surnames. Taylor, which is 3rd most common, would also refer to a clothes tailor.


Thompson and Williams - Patronymic or matronymic

In the top 10 most common English names, 6 are classed as patronymic surnames, which are Jones, Williams, Wilson, Johnson, Davies, and Robinson. These surnames are all derived from the fathers or grandfathers who came before them, and literally translate as “Son of William/John/Robin etc” - in recent centuries these names were simplified to the versions we see today.


Learning about family history and our origins can help to create a deeper sense of identity for many, and is also a great way of developing historical knowledge too. If you’d like to know more about your family history there’s a wide variety of resources available online to get you started such as