In the last twenty years surname study has emerged as a serious field of research for the historian and linguist. In many ways, however, it is the genealogist who holds the key to this whole area of study, and who stands to benefit most from the more rigorous methods now being employed. The days when etymology alone mattered have gone, and it is clear that “meaning,” however defined, must wait on genealogical research.
As yet there is no adequate reference on English surnames, and large numbers of linguistically important forms have been ignored. Moreover, even where names have been studied in detail, the existing dictionaries are fallible, for there are many instances where little attempt has been made to demonstrate clear links between modern and medieval examples. Recent research into English surnames assumes great importance for scholars in a variety of disciplines, and some of the findings reveal the benefits and problems for genealogists.
For example, much greater emphasis has been placed on the distinction between hereditary and non-hereditary names. It is probable that one reason for the use of surnames was the need in an increasing population to differentiate between individuals with the same Christian name, but this in itself could not explain why a surname was passed on to the next generation. For the genealogist, the question is of vital importance; the first bearer of the surname more often than not represents the attainable end point in his research, and successful identification can lead to conclusions about social status, origins, and meaning.
If, as seems increasingly likely, the first inheriting of a surname was closely tied to the inheriting of possessions, status, or occupation, it can also be shown that in some regions this was a process which accelerated after the plague of 1349-50 known as the Black Death — in precisely that period when the population was at its lowest ebb for many generations.
There has also been an attempt to explain more accurately the characteristics of many different types of surnames, for the findings which relate to one particular category cannot be assumed to apply to all others. Indeed, it is now generally recognized that the traditional classification into four groups is inadequate, sufficient though it has been for most purposes. So diverse are the different regions in England that general conclusions cannot easily be made.
Perhaps the most important conclusion English scholars have reached is that many surnames of all categories seem to have originated with a single family. The implications of unique family names are significant for historians and open exciting possibilities in the study of migration and social mobility; the implications for the genealogist are of course even more significant and must eventually have considerable impact on research methods.
Obviously, there are many surnames that do not fall into this “single origin” category, and which, like Smith, Taylor, or Hill, have multiple origins. However, it should also be said that somewhere — between the two types there are those numerous surnames with “plural” origins — names which are not unique, but which were certainly distinctive within their own regions.
The question of the nature of surname origins must also consider the frequency and distribution of a given name, and it should never be assumed that simply because a surname is prevalent, it belongs automatically in the multiple origins category. For example, a close study of the Yorkshire surname Dyson, taking into account its distribution at different dates, emphasizes that in most if not all cases, those males who bear the name share a common ancestor in Linthwaite (near Huddersfield). The bonus in this case is that the progenitor can be named as Dionisia of Linthwaite, a tenant of Wakefield manor between 1286 and 1306. The present day telephone directory covering Linthwaite and its region lists no fewer than 640 Dysons, most of whom live no more than 10 miles from where the surname originated. For a family with a 700-year history, however, such numbers represent a modest expansion in statistical terms.
While the theory of single origins for many names may benefit genealogists, it must also be said that recent research has emphasized other less helpful aspects of surname developments. Aspinwell, for instance, is a distinctive surname derived from a Lancashire locality and evidenced as early as the 13th century. However, in the course of its ramification and wider distribution, the name has developed a large number of variant forms, all  of which conform to linguistic possibilities but nonetheless pose major problems of identification. If we consider that among the forms that have survived there are spellings as disparate as Espiner, Asman, and Ashmall, it is clear that genealogists must either seek to understand the linguistic processes involved, or in some way gain accurate and comprehensive reference works to identify the variants.
Finally, a complication for the genealogist which has been little noted but which nevertheless affects a substantial number of family names is the use of an alias. There were many reasons for aliases, ranging from bastardy to criminal deception, and many cases of individuals with two surnames have been recorded in documents. However, it is not the explicit alias which causes problems; the fact is that some families had literally a choice of surnames and could employ whichever they preferred, depending on the occasion. One Yorkshire family appeared in some records as Shepherd, in others as Milner, a fact which would have been almost impossible to detect had not the alias been explicit on one occasion. In the case of another Yorkshire name, Ormondroyd, recognizing the link between examples occurring in Bradford in the 14th and 19th centuries was possible only when it was discovered that Hammond, or Hawmond, was an alias used throughout that 450-year interval.
There are many lessons to be learned from the recent research on surnames, but for the American genealogist two particular points of great importance emerge. The first is that his English name, however common and widely distributed it is in the U.S.A., may have a very distinctive origin in England, and most of its history may be limited to a relatively small area. This distinctiveness can be true of names in all categories, and finding the “home” of an English name can be a major step in genealogical research. The second point calls for greater powers of detection. The genealogist must exercise his skill in recognizing widely differing versions of his surname and be alert to the possibility that the ancestor he has failed to find may actually be there in the records, but hiding behind a different name — one which may have no linguistic connection with his own.