Do surnames mean what they say?

If your surname is Mason, Carpenter or Angove (Cornish for smith) you can be fairly sure that, at some point in the distant past, one of your ancestors was a mason, carpenter or a smith. But can the same be said about names such as King, Bishop, Knight, Squire, Chancellor and similar?

Many of these turn up from an early date – far too many and far too humble to have been the actual offspring of such exalted figures. It’s been suggested that high-status names such as these derive from being the servant or retainer of one of them, but no evidence has been found to prove this link. It’s also sometimes proposed that the name could have been given to someone who played the part of such a person in mystery plays. Some may be, but the sheer number of these names at an early stage also make this an unlikely explanation for all but a minority.

The more likely probability is that these surnames were bestowed as nicknames reflecting the popular prejudices or stereotypes of the time about the characteristics of those who held high status roles. Abbots were fat, sheriffs were oppressive and so on.

Here’s the distribution of two such names – Knight and Bishop – in sixteenth century Cornwall. They were both widespread by this time. However, as we might expect, there’s a hint, certainly for Knight at least, that fewer were found in the Cornish-speaking west. In any case, here there were Cornish language equivalents – Marrack and Epscop – no doubt often suffering the indignity of being translated when written down.