That's the underlying question in a new book which looks at some ancient names of powerful and influential families who were at the forefront of shaping the history of Britain.
"Great British Family Names And Their History" is the first foray into historical non-fiction for John Moss, who studied fine arts and English in Wolverhampton and Manchester art schools, before taking early retirement after teaching and lecturing in art and design.
Many ancient family names, he writes, predate Norman times. Surnames, he says, are a relatively recent occurrence, and before 1066 people were simply known by a personal name or nickname.
Many common surnames are of straightforward derivation, coming from specific occupations, like Smith, Shepherd, Baker, and so on, while others come from places, like York, and Chester. He does not include these, as he says their derivations are self-evident, and says most of the names he has included in his book originated long before the structure of the English language was established.
Among those he highlights in the western part of the Midlands, including Shropshire, are the Bassett family of Drayton, originating in the Old French word basset or bassa, meaning thick set, often referring to a man of short or low stature.
Although the Bassetts were found in several areas of England, the main branch settled in Staffordshire, with the family line founded by Thurstan Basset (1050 to 1128), who held land in Drayton – known today as Drayton Basset.
The name Corbet, as seen in the Corbet family from Moreton Corbet, comes from a Norman word meaning crow, with the line being traceable to 11th century Normandy. The Corbets were to become wealthy Shropshire landowners.
The De Somery family story begins with the 13th century rebuilding of Dudley Castle by Ralph de Somery.
"The last of the De Somery male line died in 1321 and the estate passed to his sister, Margaret, and her husband John de Sutton, who adopted the surname Dudley," writes Moss.
The Giffards of Chillington were Norman knights who settled in Staffordshire.
"Chillington Hall, near Brewood, has been the home of the Giffard family for over 800 years," he says.
Among other Midlands names featured are Stafford, first found in Staffordshire in the person of Ralph de Teoni, one of the standard bearers for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings; the Talbot family of Shrewsbury, traceable to just after that battle; and the Harley family of Brampton Bryan, of pre-conquest origin, and possibly having originated from the village of Harley near Much Wenlock.
Great British Family Names And Their History is published by Pen & Sword and costs £19.99.