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About the study

My interest in the Kay family started through helping my wife, who was born a Kay, with her family history. She took me along to meetings of the Kay Family Association UK where my interest grew but it was not until I discovered that I had Kays in a branch of my maternal family tree that I started researching the name seriously. I have been collecting occurrences of the Kay(e) name since 2005, joined the Guild of One Name Studies in 2007 and registered the one name study in 2008.

Name origin

A variety of explanations for the name have been put forward:-

  • The Middle English "€œKei"€, from the Danish dialect "€œKei"€, meaning left-handed or left-footed, possibly a nickname for a clumsy person
  • The Middle English "€œKa"€, "€œKae"€ or "€œKay"€ from the Old Norse "€œKa"€, meaning a jackdaw, presumably a nickname for someone who sounded like a jackdaw.
  • Possibly the name for a key-bearer
  • The Old French "€œKay"€ and Middle English "€œKay", "€œKey"€ or "€œKeay"€, meaning a quay; possibly indicating residence near or employment at a wharf or quay
  • The Old Welsh "€œKei"€, from the Latin "€œCaius"€.

More recently the name has also been adopted by many immigrants to English-speaking countries who originally had non-English surnames beginning with the letter "€œk"€.

The earliest recorded occurrences of the Kay name in England appear in Norfolk (1197), Northants (1199), Gloucestershire (1199), London (1207), Yorkshire (1219), Lancashire (1246), Worcestershire (1275), Sussex (1296), Suffolk (1327), Staffordshire (1331), Cumberland (1484), Cambridgeshire (1492), Somerset (1500) and Lincolnshire (1506). The widespread distribution of the name at such early dates indicates that there is unlikely to have been a single common ancestor for all Kays and that the name may well have appeared spontaneously in a number of places, no doubt for a variety of reasons.

Historical occurrences of the name

There have been may notable holders of the Kay(e) surname throughout history:

John Kay (c. 1482) - "€œpoete lawreate"€ of Edward IV

John Kay (1704 -€“ c.1780) -€“ inventor of the flying shuttle

John Kay (1742 -€“ 1826) - portrait etcher and miniature painter

Sir James Phillips Kay (1804-1877) -€“ educational reformer

Distribution of the name

The highest concentration of the Kay surname is to be found in Lancashire around Bury, Bolton and Blackburn. Kaye, on the other hand, is found in Yorkshire particularly in the Huddersfield area


The Kay Family Association UK has joined with the Key Family DNA project at FamilyTree DNA to explore links between the Kay/Kaye/Key families.