Smorgasbord Posts from My Archives – Stuck for a name for your characters. Look no further than your own family tree.



Stuck for a name for your characters. Look no further than your own family tree.

One of the problems with writing short stories and also novels with a cast of thousands is trying to find original last names for your characters.

First names are a different issue as you have to choose names that reflect the time you are writing about. I doubt there were many girls given the names Sharon and Tracy in the 1500s or Darren and North!

However, most surnames have a long and illustrious history and go back hundreds of years and one of the places that is a treasure trove of names to use in your writing, is in your family tree.

I researched my own for both maternal and paternal lines over ten years ago, and because there was little actual history attached to the names you find, I decided to research the names origins too. It is not essential but quite useful to know where the names originate so that if you have characters that come from different parts of the country you can assign them a name that would be in keeping with the area.

Whilst I know that it is a huge undertaking to research a complete family tree it is well worth going back at least 100 years. You only have to go back as far as your great grandparents to find several names that you can use. As well as a wonderful source of names for your characters, if you are really fortunate, your parents and grandparents might be able to give you stories on the more recent family members that will give you the basis for your character backgrounds.

Just a word on that… Not a good idea to base your characters on those family members still living who might object to having their secrets shared so openly in your latest novel. But if you have an interesting ancestor from the 1900s or earlier, then the chances are you won’t be sued.

So here is the treasure trove of names from my direct line through my father back to 1490. No doubt if you read some of my stories or novels in future years you may meet one or two of them again!


Irish: Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Clumháin ‘descendant of Clumhán’, a personal name from the diminutive of clúmh ‘down’, ‘feathers’.
English: occupational name for a burner of charcoal or a gatherer of coal, Middle English coleman, from Old English col ‘(char)coal’ + mann ‘man’.

Cliff / Cliffe
English: habitational name from a place named with Old English clif ‘slope’, ‘bank’, ‘cliff’, or a topographic name from the same word. The Old English word was used not only in the sense of modern English cliff but also of much gentler slopes and frequently also of a riverbank.

English: topographic name for someone who lived near a chapel, from Middle English chapel(l)e ‘chapel’, via Old French, from Late Latin capella, originally a diminutive of capa ‘hood’, ‘cloak’, but later transferred to the sense ‘chapel’, ‘sanctuary’, with reference to the shrine at Tours where the cloak of St. Martin was preserved as a relic.

nickname for someone with white or fair hair, from Middle English whit ‘white’ + lock ‘tress’, ‘curl’. Old English personal name composed of the elements wiht ‘creature’, ‘demon’ + lac ‘play’, ‘sport’.

Scottish and English: topographic name for someone who lived near a mill, Middle English mille, milne (Old English myl(e)n, from Latin molina, a derivative of molere ‘to grind’). It was usually in effect an occupational name for a worker at a mill or for the miller himself. The mill, whether powered by water, wind, or (occasionally) animals, was an important center in every medieval settlement; it was normally operated by an agent of the local landowner, and individual peasants were compelled to come to him to have their grain ground into flour, a proportion of the ground grain being kept by the miller by way of payment.

Seller /Sellers
English and Scottish: topographic name, a variant of Sell.
English and Scottish: occupational name for a saddler, from Anglo-Norman French seller (Old French sellier, Latin sellarius, a derivative of sella ‘seat’, ‘saddle’).
English and Scottish: metonymic occupational name for someone employed in the cellars of a great house or monastery, from Anglo-Norman French celler ‘cellar’ (Old French cellier), or a reduction of the Middle English agent derivative cellerer.
English and Scottish: occupational name for a tradesman or merchant, from an agent derivative of Middle English sell(en) ‘to sell’ (Old English sellan ‘to hand over, deliver’).

English, Scottish, and northern Irish: patronymic from Jack

English and French: nickname from Middle English, Old French prince (Latin princeps), presumably denoting someone who behaved in a regal manner or who had won the title in some contest of skill.

English (chiefly Leicestershire): variant of Hubert

German, Dutch, English, French, and Jewish (Ashkenazic): from a Germanic personal name composed of the elements hug ‘heart’, ‘mind’, ‘spirit’ + berht ‘bright’, ‘famous’. The name was borne by an 8th-century bishop of Maastricht who was adopted as the patron of hunters, and helped to increase the popularity of the personal name, especially in the Low Countries.

English (Lancashire) and Scottish: habitational name from any of various places so called. Most, including those in Cambridgeshire (formerly Huntingdonshire), Cleveland, Derbyshire, and Shropshire, get the name from Old English hyll ‘hill’ + tun ‘enclosure’, ‘settlement’. Others, including those in Cumbria and Dorsetshire, have early forms in Hel- and probably have as their first element Old English hielde ‘slope’ or possibly helde ‘tansy’.
English: some early examples such as Ralph filius Hilton (Yorkshire 1219) point to occasional derivation from a personal name, possibly a Norman name Hildun, composed of the Germanic elements hild ‘strife’, ‘battle’ + hun ‘bear cub’. The English surname is present in Ireland (mostly taken to Ulster in the early 17th century, though recorded earlier in Dublin).

English: from Anglo-Norman French gerner ‘granary’ (Old French grenier, from Late Latin granarium, a derivative of granum ‘grain’). It may have been a topographic name for someone who lived near a barn or granary, or a metonymic occupational name for someone in charge of the stores kept in a granary.
English: variant of Warner, from a central Old French form.
English: reduced form of Gardener.

English: variant spelling of Bolton.

English: habitational name from any of the numerous places in northern England named Bolton, especially the one in Lancashire, from Old English boðl ‘dwelling’, ‘house’‘enclosure’, ‘settlement’.

Possibly a habitational name from Mundford in Norfolk

French and English (of Norman origin): habitational name from any of the numerous places called Montfort, from Old French mont ‘hill’ + fort ‘strong’, ‘impregnable’ (Latin fortis). A Norman bearer of this name, from Montfort-sur-Risle in Eure, near Brionne, accompanied William the Conqueror in his invasion of England in 1066.

English, Scottish, and northern Irish: occupational name for a maker of machinery, mostly in wood, of any of a wide range of kinds, from Old English wyrhta, wryhta ‘craftsman’ (a derivative of wyrcan ‘to work or make’). The term is found in various combinations (for example, Cartwright and Wainwright), but when used in isolation it generally referred to a builder of windmills or watermills.

I used a number of resources to find out the origins of these names and here are some links that might help you.

Have fun.. and thanks for dropping in today. Sally


28 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Posts from My Archives – Stuck for a name for your characters. Look no further than your own family tree.

  1. Pingback: Smorgasbord Posts from My Archives – Stuck for a name for your characters. Look no further than your own family tree. | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  2. With regards to names is it an idea to have a name that you think or could be regarded as ‘cool’. This might sound a little naive if the author could imagine themselves going by that name would it not make for an exciting story. The name of the character in my latest novel, who is an author himself, is a pen name that I thought of using on various occasions. Ian Fleming chose James Bond because he wanted a name that didn’t stand out. I think the best way to name your characters is to have a name that doesn’t stand out, but at the same time is fairly unique as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the approach for lead characters is a bit different and you are right. However, if you have several characters in your novel it is useful to avoid the more commonly used names. Going back several generations also gives you names for older characters perhaps which would be more generation appropriate. At the end of the day all of us have our own processes and it is finding one that works for you. thanks for sharing Tom.


  3. Pingback: Smorgasbord Weekly Round Up – Gardening and Food Columns, Marital Advice and Lots of Music | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

I would be delighted to receive your feedback (by commenting, you agree to Wordpress collecting your name, email address and URL) Thanks Sally

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