Naming traditions

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Family names are common in most (but not all) countries today but it was not always the case. For most of the last few thousand years, people had their individual (formal) names and possibly also an (informal) nickname and, in a world much less populated than today, that was normally enough. As populations grew, the pressure to distinguish between people grew. This (we presume) led to a closer association of names with nicknames & descriptions – Lars known as ‘Lars the bearded’ to distinguish him from ‘Lars with the red hair’ – until having two names became commonplace. Unless & until they obtained nicknames or descriptions of their own, children would have taken their ‘second name’ from their father or mother, such as Harold son of Olaf being known as Harold Olafson. Over time, it became increasingly convenient for family members to have the same second name so that they could be identified as members of the same family. Whilst there were exceptions, British family names generally derived from one of four categories:

1. physical description of an ancestor (families called Black probably had an ancestor with black hair; Reid: red hair; Long: a tall person; Boyd from boidh, the gaelic for fair; Bayne from bean, gaelic for white).

2. description of an ancestor’s occupation (Smith, Carpenter, Turner, Steward, Dispencer or Spencer).

3. identification of an ancestor’s ancestor (MacDonald being son of Donald, O’Neil being of Neil’s family, FitzWilliam being son of William, Johnson being son of John).  Such naming was (and remains) particularly common in the Scandinavian countries which produced the ancestors of many British families.

4. identification of an ancestor’s place of birth (George who came from Stirling being called George of Stirling, later just George Stirling).  Such names are called ‘local names’ and were particularly common amongst landed families.

Some interesting combinations arose. As shown on Windsor1, Walter FitzOther (or FitzOtho), Constable of Windsor Castle around 1100, had (at least) 3 sons:

1. His eldest and youngest sons took the designation “de Windsor” and their descendants were known as Windsor.

2. The second son was known as Gerald FitzWalter who had (at least) 3 sons:

– William FitzGerald of Carru Castle who had descendants who took the name Carew.

– Maurice FitzGerald who had descendants who took the name FitzGerald or FitzMaurice.

– David FitzGerald, Bishop of St. Davids, whose son appears to have been known as Milo FitzBishop.

For the landed families in England & Scotland, family names tended to settle down by the early 15th century. In Wales, whilst some families followed the English and took family names around the same time, for many landed families it was not until the 17th century that family names settled down. For some less privileged families in each of those countries, it was not until well into the 19th century that family names settled down, often under pressure from government & charitable administrators.


Until recent times, when such traditions have largely broken down, many parents in many countries avoided disagreements on how they should name their children by adopting a traditional method.  There were of course many occasions when exceptions were made, such as when there was someone whom the parents wished to honour by naming a child after him/her, but, whilst many families developed their own traditions (perhaps of always naming the eldest son after his father and/or the eldest daughter after the father’s mother), probably the most common naming tradition in England & Scotland was that:

1. eldest sons were named after their father’s father.

2. second sons were named after their mother’s father (unless the same as their father’s father).

3. third sons took their father’s name (unless the same as an elder brother).

1. eldest daughters were named after their mother’s mother.

2. second daughters were named after their father’s mother (unless the same as the mother’s mother).

3. third daughters took their mother’s name (unless the same as an elder sister).

You have to be careful not to rely too much on this tradition for research purposes. Well into the 20th century, many infants did not survive.  Accordingly, knowing that the eldest surviving boy in a family was called James does not make it safe to guess that his father’s father was named James unless you also know that he had no elder brothers who died young.  Also, there were occasions when, after a child had died very young, the same name was used for a later child, sometimes with an intervening birth ‘confusing’ the normal order.

Additional confusion can arise because of the variability of certain names.  Consider an example of this from Scotland: Janet was often interchangeable with Jonet and/or Jane.  Similarly, Jane was often interchangeable with Jean.  However, Janet/Jonet do not seem to have been interchanged all that often with Jean whilst in some families there were both a Jane and a Jean.