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From drunkards to rascal, find out the REAL meaning behind your surname in old-age English

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A fascinating book sheds light on the real meaning of a host of common surnames, based on how they have evolved from nicknames used in 13th century Britain.

A Dictionary of Surnames, by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges, uses genealogy and linguistics to trace the heritage of European last names such as Black, Palmer and Rudd - plus a few more unusual specimens.

The authors identify a clear association between amusing and derisive medieval nicknames and their modern day counterparts.

Monikers that started out as a reference to a person's job, where they lived, how they behaved or even what they looked like developed over time to become commonplace surnames.

Beal, for instance, means handsome (evolved from Bel - fair or lovely). Blunt means someone with fair hair (from blund) or a stupid person (from blont, dull) - we won't tell this one to actress Emily Blunt.

We doubt Jarvis Cocker would be happy with the definition of his last name as "a bellicose person" either. Tom Cruise, however, fares better; his surname is derived from a nickname meaning bold or fierce.

All those Dukes out there should be aware that their surname evolves from a way of singling out someone who gives himself airs and graces. While Dick, though it may be a somewhat embarrassing surname now, comes from the fairly innocuous slang for a stout, thick man. And Cock was used to describe a natural leader back in the day.

The book explores the way in which surnames became increasingly used in the Middle Ages, as families became more prosperous and started to pass down their names to future generations. At the same time, the emergence of tax collectors and bailiffs also made last names a necessity in order to properly identify and trace people.

The authors also discovered that, even where the meaning of a particular surname was derogatory or based on a negative trait, it was rarely changed after it officially went on record.

The book explores the origins of more than 100,000 last names in total. Here's a few highlights from typical and lesser-known surnames....

Tom Cruise's surname denotes someone who is bold or fierce, while Emily Blunt's used to mean either someone with fair hair or a stupid person

The old-age meanings behind common surnames:

Beake — person with a prominent nose

Burr — a person who is difficult to shake off (from bur, a seed head that sticks to clothing)

Cruise — bold, fierce

Curtis — a refined person

Dolittle — a lazy person

Dowling — a stupid person, (from doll stupid)

Fairfax — someone with beautiful, long hair (from feax, hair, tresses)

Hart — nickname meaning stag

King — someone who conducts himself in a kingly manner

Lovell — nickname from lou, meaning wolf

Mann — a strong or fierce person

Nightingale — someone with a good voice

Palmer — someone who had been on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Read — a person with red hair or a ruddy complexion

Sharp — keen, active, quick

Silver — a rich man or someone with gray hair

Wight — strong-willed or brave

Wild — nickname someone of violent and undisciplined character

Sadly for Eliza Doolittle, her surname used to be a nickname for a lazy person in the Middle Ages

And a few more unusual titles:

Arlott — vagabond, rascal

Belcher - Someone with a fair or lovely face

Boggis — a boastful person

Bowler — a heavy drinker

Cock — a natural leader

Mutton — a gentle but unimaginative person

Puddy — someone rotund

Puttock — nickname for a greedy person

Scaife — an awkward or difficult man

Thewlis — an ill mannered person

A Dictionary of Surnames by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges - buy it here

Photos: Rex Features

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