What Can You Learn About Your Forebears From The Meaning Of Surnames?

There is a lot that goes into a surname, though many tend to think that it pertains to an occupation that a male forebear had many generations ago. We see common names like Baker, Miller, Draper, Fisher, etc. as a result. However, there are plenty of surnames that are also based on geographical location, personal attributes, clans, and more.

It’s important to note that an estimated 90 percent of surnames in the dictionary all come from Great Britain or Ireland. Let’s take a glimpse into some of those different types of surnames and what they could say about your forebears.


The easiest type of surname to trace is the occupational type. These are the surnames that very specifically have job titles in their names, and they are among the most common surnames in the world. Here is the list of the most common occupational surnames and what they mean if it’s not as obvious:

  • Archer
  • Baker
  • Barber
  • Bender (Cooper, or Caskmaker)
  • Butler
  • Cook
  • Draper
  • Fisher
  • Gardener
  • Mason
  • Miller
  • Potter
  • Sheppard
  • Shoemaker
  • Skinner (Skins animals for fur trade)
  • Taylor
  • Weaver
  • Wheeler

In the times when the world’s population was booming, it was important to have a surname to be more identifiable. Occupations were becoming much more common, and selecting a surname after the occupation you had was the easiest route. Of course, the most popular occupational surname of all is Smith, which literally just means ‘worker.’


If your surname isn’t based on an occupation, there’s a good chance that it could be a description of the region where your forebears are from. There are some rather common ones, but they may be a bit vague. Surnames like Hill, Wood, Marsh, or any direction (North, West) can you give some sort of clue to a region, but not a specific area.

Then, there are surnames that tell you exactly where your forebears are from. Some of these more common surnames include Ainsley, Aston, Bohm, Chester, Darby, Holland, Janikowski, Kendall, Napoli, Parish, Roma, Tracey, Van Buren, Washington, and York.


Let’s say that so far your surname or a hint of it hasn’t popped up yet. There’s a chance that the entirety of your family’s history was given to a man’s first name. For instance, if your surname is Jackson, your family’s surname can be traced all the way back to a man named Jack. There are a ton of surnames that end in -son, almost all of which have stuck around for generations.

It’s hard to say what exactly this means for your forebears. They could have been a commoner or someone with tremendous influence. Either way, here are some of the more popular paternal surnames, whether or not they have -son at the end:

  • Johnson
  • Jones
  • Davis
  • Anderson
  • Jackson
  • Thompson
  • Robinson
  • Roberts
  • Edwards
  • Rogers
  • Peters
  • Peterson
  • Richardson
  • Brooks
  • Sanders

Physical Traits

In the end, there are many people that are given a surname due to a physical trait that one of their forebears had many, many years ago. Think of names like Short, which can either be used to describe someone that was actually very short or ironically given to a tall person. There are also names like Beckett (given to someone with a prominent nose, or “beak”), White, Brown, Klein (meaning small), Russo (given to someone with red hair), or even Strong.


No matter what your surname is, there’s likely a very specific reason that the name was chosen. Now you know a little bit more about your forebears, with some learning a lot of specifics about their lineage while others are much vaguer. Either way, it’s fun to think about where your family came from and what they’ve accomplished over the years. Just to think, hundreds of years later, a man with a father named Jack was given the surname Jackson, and it has become one of the most popular surnames in the world.

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