The Kay Family Association UK

What’s In A Name

We Kays are blessed with one of the shortest surnames in the English Language. Phonetically it reduces to a single consonant. Who could ask for more? Or less? So where did the name come from?

Kay is one of the very few surnames that have remained intact over the centuries without any change and for no apparent reason – the Fletchers made arrows and the Archers fired them; the Taylors made coats and the Walkers wore them while they were out walking; the Smiths wrought with metal, the Coopers made barrels, the Millers ground corn, and the Carters drove their wares to the fair. So what did the Kays do?

Did they come from somewhere? We have plenty of surnames that derive from a place – Bury, Chester, London, York for starters, then down to the village – Radcliffe, Shuttleworth and Elton are three names that spring to mind from the Bury area.

The Kays are arrogant in their name. Look at the early tax rolls. Here’s one from Bury in 1332 when Edward 111 was raising money for his wars against the Scots:

Margia de Radclive vijs
Jone de Ffenton iijs
Thom de Weberton ijs iijd
Willo Kay iijs iiijd
Rico de Notehogh ijs
Ad fil Robti vijs
Johe fil Mathi vijs
Rog de Walmeslegh ijs
Willo de Bury ijs iiijd
Johe de Routhesthorn ijs
Willo le Mordmer ijs

William Kay stands alone; he didn’t come from anywhere, he wasn’t anybody’s son, he didn’t do anything, he was William Kay!

Dictionaries of surnames suggest the following origins:

The derivation from the Roman Caius is worth a look. This, after all, is where Sir Kay of the Round Table came from via the Welsh legends. When the Saxons came in, the old Romano-British civilisation was driven back into Wales and Cornwall, where the old Roman names continued to be used. Consider also the old kingdom of Elmet centred around the West Riding of Yorkshire, one of the last in England to survive against the Saxons; did the name linger on there? Elmet included Almondbury, where there’s a host of Kayes. However, like all good theories, this one appeared at one point to have foundered on reality, the findings of Project 50 suggesting we’re of Viking stock; having said that, more recent developments in the science suggest a Caucasian origin, brought into this country by Roman cavalry recruited from that area. Who knows?

Moving north of the border, we have the name MacKay; the Mac part is easy – it is the Celtic for ‘son of’ – but what about the second syllable? There is a suggestion is that this is of Celtic origin from Mac Aodha (meaning ‘son of fire’), and that there are Manx links as well; an alternative is a variant of McKie, meaning the son of a champion (that spelling crops up a lot in England too). The name Kee was commonly used in the Isle of Man. More simply, what about ‘the son of Kay’? Variants of MacKay do crop up a lot in England, particularly in the north of the country. In some parts of Cumberland, ‘Kay’ and ‘McKie’ are treated as synonymous – there are entries in Family Search that are clearly for the same person where both versions are used. But as our Kays Everywhere article shows, there were plenty of Kays in Scotland too.

OK. So we’re sons of fire, we’re champions (but we know that anyway), we carry keys, we’re jackdaws (don’t see that one somehow), we’re clumsy, we live near the water, or we’re descended from Rome and can trace our ancestry back to Romulus or Remus. Anyone want to take that on?

Spellings of the name vary. We’ve got Kay, Kaye, Keay and Key among our members. The DNA study initiated by Marcus Key of Virginia puts him firmly in the same ancestral group as many of the Kays and Kayes of Lancashire and Yorkshire, showing this is a legitimate variant. Cay was often used in 17th and 18th century registers, but generally died out except in Aberdeenshire in Scotland and a small section of north east England around Sunderland. It is now generally accepted that Kaye denotes a Yorkshire origin. Lancastrian Kays seem to have opted firmly for Kay, but then so do many other parts of the country.

What is remarkable is that though spellings have varied, the name has remained phonetically consistent through many centuries. There were probably several origins, given the early wide distribution of the name, so the jury’s still out on this one.

If you want to look more closely at the spellings of the name, and where they lived, have a look at our Kays Everywhere article.