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Taylor: What's in the name?

Project Surnames


TAYLOR, Tailor, Taler, Tayler, Tayloe, Tyler

These are some of the variations of this surname. Taylor is the most common spelling, but all the variants are included in the project.

As you do your genealogical research, do not overlook spelling variations. The standardized spellings we know today did not exist until about the mid-19th century.

Who are we?

We Taylors are a varied lot by where we live, our ethnicity and other characteristics.

Most of us, roughly 720,000, live in the United States, but almost 340,000 live in the United Kingdom where the surname is twice as common. Our surname is also frequent in Australia, New Zealand and  Ireland.


About 67.8% of us in the US are classified as White by the census, 27.67% as Black, 1.78% as mixed race, 1.61% as Hispanic, 0.75% American Indian, and 0.39% Asian/Pacific Islander.


Are we all related?

Unfortunately, no.

Some surnames (a very few) do trace back to a single patriarchal founder. They are known as "single-source" names and, due to the source restriction, tend to be rare. An example is Attenborough; almost all Attenboroughs spring from a single paternal ancestor.

The single source is reflected in the family's Y-DNA, which shows little variation.

Other names, known as "plural-source" surnames, trace to a handful of founders. An example is Irwin (with variants Irvine, Erwin, etc.); with just 26 genetic families (only 30 singletons) for its 340 project participants. One of those families ("Borders") may -- with 225 members -- be the largest found in any DNA project.

The limited number of sources is reflected in the surnames Y-DNA, which shows more variation than single-source names, but less than for multiple-source names.

Taylor is in the "multiple-source" name category. We don't know how many founders there were, but estimate the number to be in the hundreds to low thousands.

The many sources are reflected in the surname's Y-DNA, which shows wide variation and diversity. For example, nine major haplogroups (counting R1a & R1b separately) and 430 unique 37-marker haplotypes (310 at 12 markers) are represented in the project.

Multiple-source names tend to be among the most common in their native countries and countries of immigration. Taylor is the 13th most-frequent surname in the US and 4th in in its source country, Great Britain.

A brief history of surnames

It surprises some to learn that our distant European ancestors didn't use surnames; only the rich and aristocratic had them -- and, often, not all of those. Surnames, passed down from father to children through the generations, came into general use by common people no earlier than the mid-1300s in Europe. By 1400, they were standard throughout England, though some countries did not adopt the practice until as late as  the 20th century.  .

A theory of how this came to be can be found here at "A Brief History of Common Surnames".

Today, there are about 45,000 surnames in Britain and a report from the 2000 US census listed almost 90,000 (without claiming to be complete).

Before Surnames

We call these predecessors of inherited family names "bynames".

Why Surnames?

You might wonder, "If we got along without surnames for all those centuries, why did they so suddenly become necessary? What made it happen so quickly?"

Some dispute the "quickly" of the above. They say surname adoption a was gradual process, taking about four centuries. This may be true for the upper social and economic classes. However, if we consider the 90% of the population who were peasants and serfs; the change for them was rapid.

Historians attribute the push for surnames largely to the aftermath of the Plague ("Black Death" or Yervinia pestis), which killed one-third or more of Europe's population in the mid- to late-1300s. As the disease killed so many laborers and their masters, wages grew and laborers (previously bound to the land.) became free to seek employment elsewhere. People began to move from their centuries-old locations to new places where they weren't known. Taxation became difficult; clerks needed to distinguish between one John and another.

One story is that England's King Edward III issued a decree in 1353 for the benefit of his local tax collectors. (The timing is about right; plague struck England in 1348.) His decree required that all persons in his realm without a surname take one for them and their children to be known by ever after. He gave his subjects four categories to choose a name from:

Or the legend may be confused with a later Edward -- the 5th -- who in 1483 extended the practice to the Irish: "They shall take unto them a Surname, either of some Town, or some Colour, as Black or Brown, or some Art or Science, as Smyth or Carpenter, or some Office, as Cooke or Butler." (See source.)

Thus, many Taylor families -- who'd never before had a surname -- sprang into existence in 1353/1354 as a result of those makers of clothing. An exact number isn't known, but is estimated into the thousands.

Genealogical Time Frame

The beginning of common surnames -- surnames for common people -- establishes what we call the "genealogical time frame", the time since the mid-1300s.  Before that time, it's almost impossible to specifically identify a specific person who was not an aristocrat. And, identification is essential to proving ancestry.

Origin of the Taylor Surname

This is an English name; about 56 of every 1,000 UK residents carry the name. It is most frequent in the region of Yorkshire & Humberside, the North west (Lancashire and Cheshire) and the West Midlands. It has moderately high density in Scotland, moderate in Northern Ireland and low in Wales and the rest of Ireland.   

For most Taylors, the name derives from the ancient craft & occupation of tailoring, when crafts were passed down within a family. When surnames began to be adopted by common people in the 1350s, occupation was one of four categories of choices and had a high degree of honor attached to it.

Adopting a surname wasn't entirely a voluntary act. It could be mandated by government for tax collection purposes.

The etymology is from the French "tailleur", for a cutter of cloth and was probably introduced to England by the Normans. Due to the vagaries of pronunciation and lack of standardized spelling, it got changed over centuries to its present form.

In the absence of the historical record, we surmise that the tailor's craft emerged shortly after people began weaving cloth and preferring it over animal hides for their clothing. As seamstresses know, laying out the cuts to make for efficient use of a piece of cloth is a challenging skill.

The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought the French word "tailleur" (meaning literally a cutter of cloth) into the English language, where it was quickly adapted to "taylor" and and "tailor". This new word came to replace the Anglo-Saxon, though there was a thriving tailoring craft already in England.

The first recorded spelling of the family name was  that of Walter Taylur, dated 1180, in the records of Canterbury Cathedral, during the reign of King Henry II for whom Walter may have been the royal tailor. And, the 1182 Pipe Rolls of southwest England's County of Somerset named William le Taillur . (See Wikipedia & the Internet Surname Database.) Also, Roger le Taylur was listed in the Hundred Rolls of Lincolnshire in 1273.

These early appendages to the given name are more properly known as "bynames", a precursor to inherited surnames.

In the 1400s, there are more than 130 records in England of people bearing the surname. (Click here to see them.) Few of these seem to have been practicing the tailoring craft. Most notable is William Taylor, a grocer, who was elected Mayor of London in 1468 and knighted in 1471.  

Each large medieval town would have had a resident tailor. There are also indications that many medieval tailors were itinerant, moving from place to place and setting up tents as demand took them. They formed guilds to set standards and regulate who could enter the business.

Thus, we have the beginning threads of our Tailor tapestry. There are many variations of the spelling of Taylor and the Project accepts all forms with the most common being: TAYLOR, Tailor, Taler, Tayler, Tayloe, and Tyler. Many of these variants are due to idiosyncratic spelling practices before the mid-19th century.

One exceptional branch may descend from one of those (perhaps fictional) Norman Conquerors, a Taliaferro (Italian for dart-thrower) who was either a baron or minstrel, depending on the account. According to the legend, Taliaferro fell at the Battle of Hastings but his family was rewarded with vast estates, becoming the Earls of Pennington. Almost a millennium of pronunciation by English-speakers turned it into Taillifer and then Taylor. We have not yet been able to identify the Y-DNA haplotype associated with this aristocratic line.

Yet other branches may have been formed by immigrants who translated the surname to the English equivalent from their native language from:

  • Dutch -- Kleermaker,
  • French -- Tailleur,
  • German -- Schneider. Alternate spellings: Schnieder, Snyder, Snider, Sneider, Sneijder, Schnyder Sznajder and Znaider.
  • Greek -- Ράφτης
  • Hungarian -- Szabo
  • Italian -- Sarto
  • Portuguese -- Alfaiate
  • Russian -- Portnov,
  • Spanish -- Sastre

Yet another variant, Taler, has a Germanic origin. In German, "tal" means valley and "taler" those who live in a valley.

There are over 500 members in the Taylor surname project and the membership keeps growing! Still, we represent only a tiny fraction of the surname's families.

Early Taylors in England

Ancient records of of most people are scarce. However, we can present some records of Taylors from the 15th century (1400-1499. Click here.

The Taylors' Guild

When we consider the ancient roots of an occupational surname, we should also remember the guilds for the occupation. According to some sources, guilds originated as fraternal, religious and benevolent societies -- only later adding trade & craft aspects. Among the guild functions was the staging of plays or pageants on religious holidays. (Source.)

The word "guild" comes from Old English Gild, or geld, for a set payment or contribution .. and eventually the company of those who paid the "license fee" to the authorities . {Source}  Or it may have meant a festival and came to refer to the company  at the festival. The groups seem to have evolved over the centuries from their earliest origins into the form we now think of them:

  1. Frith Guild -- at first, a body of kinsfolk who bound themselves together for protection;
  2. Religious Guild -- a company of fellow-believers who celebrated religious feasts together; dispensed charity; paid Church burial fees, and had masses recited for the dead;
  3. Merchant Guild -- an association of traders in commodities; and finally,
  4. Craft Guild -- company of artisans, all occupied in the same craft.

Craft guilds retained elements of their predecessors -- combining protection, religious celebration and trade regulation with their craft concerns.

In the class stratification of medieval Europe, it was natural that organizations would form along occupational lines, since that guaranteed members would have similar status, following social conventions of the times. Some of the guilds were loose associations, sometimes amalgamating with related crafts or disappearing. Others, like those of the tailors, seem to have been continuous, highly organized and well-respected; they may have had their own guild castles in which they would gather on the feast of Corpus Christi on Cross Monday.

The tailors' guilds were among the largest, due to the universal need for the craftsmen's work in everyday life. Conditions in medieval England were, perhaps, something like this description of colonial America:

"Most .. bought their clothes. Few lived so self-sufficient an existence that they wove cloth, carved buttons, and stitched together fabric in front of the fireplace. Almost everybody .. from slaves to merchants to royal governors required a tailor."

The tailors' guild named "Merchauntaile", was one of the twelve great guilds (of a total 70 guilds) and licensed in the time of King Edward I (1272-1302). In 1422, Henry VI gave the guild a charter  under the name of "Masters and Wardens of the Maternity of St. John Baptist of London". By 1485, King Henry VII became a member and changed the name to "Merchant's Tailors".

Salisbury, chartered in 1227, originally had only one Merchant Guild, composed of about 300 men of various occupations. By the end of the 14th century, individual craft guilds had apparently taken root, though there are few mentions of them until the 15th century.

The tailors of Aberdeen, Scotland were one of the seven incorporated guilds with special status. There, records of the guilds go back to the 16th century.

In stark contrast to the establishment guilds was the "Rural Tailors' Guild", a militant organization, formed to combat the 19th century forces of the Industrial Revolution threatening the livelihoods of Welsh tailors. Among its slogans was "Each tailor's innovation is a bullet aimed at the machines on an assembly line."

Of course, no discussion of English tailors would be complete without mentioning London's Savile Row, which has been home to the world's most renowned tailors since 1803. Sadly, none of the current establishments bear the Taylor surname on the door. This street was also the location of the Beatles' Apple Studios.

Famous Taylors

People bearing the Taylor surname have achieved fame and infamy from ancient times to the present. We've catalogued a few of them on our "Famous Taylors" page.

Prevalence of the Taylor surname

Taylor is a surname found throughout the world but its prevalence is highest in English-speaking countries. About 56 of every 1,000 UK residents carry the name and they've spread it to the world.. In one district of New Zealand, more than 10% of the people are named Taylor.

It is most frequent in the English regions of Yorkshire & Humberside (79:1,000), the North west (Lancashire and Cheshire) and the West Midlands. It has moderately high density in Scotland, moderate in Northern Ireland and low in Wales and the rest of Ireland.   

Number of Taylors

According to a 2010 estimate, there are about 1,760,000 people in the world with the Taylor surname or a variant. 79% of them spell the name "Taylor". 11% "Taylo"; 5% Tyler and 4% "Tailor". Other variants do not reach 1%.

Of all variants, 51.7% live in the USA; 20.8% in the United Kingdom; 11.4% in Argentina; 6.2% in Australia; 4.2% each in Canada and India; and 0.2% in Ireland.

Source: www.publicprofiles.org/worldnames

In the United States

Taylor (even without its variations) is the 13th most common surname in America (of 88,799 names).  It is carried by about 0.3% of the US population, almost 1,000,000 people.  Its relative frequency has been reduced since the early colonial era by immigration from other countries. As Kellys, Strassburgers, Lafayettes, Andersons, Cohens and Garcias came to America, the number of Taylors increased but the percentage of the whole decreased.

In Great Britain

It ranks even higher in popularity in England and Wales (4th of 500) and is almost as common in Scotland (13th of 100).

According to this source:

High Frequency Surnames  says the prevalence in England was once higher: "In 1933, the then Registrar-General S. P. Vivian conducted a .. survey":

  Smith Taylor Brown
1840/41 1.441% 0.712% 0.600%
1885/6 1.442% 0.702% 0.618%
1930/31 1.699% 0.651% 0.704%

This prevalence in England and Wales (taken together) comes almost solely from England. In Wales -- where almost 14% of people are named Jones -- Taylor isn't among the 100 most frequent names. In Scotland, the name's frequency has been increasing since the mid-19th century, perhaps, as a result of migration from the south.


Source: www.publicprofiles.org/worldnames

In summary, Taylor is among the most common surnames in all English-speaking countries. Less so in non-English countries.

One Taylor Patriarch?

It is sometimes speculated that all Taylors belong to one family sharing the same line of descendancy, if we could only identify that one patriarch of us all. It's a seductive myth.

Not to put too fine a point on it: Poppycock!   This myth is espoused by those who've failed to do their homework. They haven't looked at the evidence.

Taylor is not a single-point-of-origin surname. It arose in many places, adopted almost simultaneously by many families.

Perhaps, we Taylors all share a common male ancestor. However, that man was almost certainly not named Taylor and he would have lived hundreds of millennia before surnames. He would also be shared with many of other surnames.

Taylor Coat of Arms?

We do not display a coat of arms for Taylors and for a very good reason -- respect for the rules & traditions of heraldry. Under heraldic rules, a coat of arms may be used only by the eldest son of the deceased former bearer and by no other. The arms may not be used by any other descendants or non-descendants. Each person, however, is free to devise his or her own coat of arms and bequeath them.

Further, a single coat of arms would imply that there is only one Taylor family, descended from a common patriarch. This proposition does not square with the scientific, historical and genealogical facts.

How many Taylor families?

The number of original Taylor families, say in 1400 AD, is an important question, but one without a ready answer. Project administration has devoted considerable thought to the question and arrived at a range of estimates -- from a low of ~240 to a high of ~2,000. For more, see this link.

 One source says that there were about 2,400 towns of sufficient size to have a market or fair by 1516 (when England was beginning to recover from the Plague). We can guess that there was at least one family of tailors plying their trade in each of the larger towns but only one of each was allowed to take the name.

Go to Topp

Revised: 5/18/2011