Paine is a patronymic, meaning “son of Paine”. This was a forename derived from the old French Paien, which in turn comes from the Latin Paganus.

Nowadays, “pagan” is used of people who followed (or still follow) ancient religions, though its older meaning was anyone who was not Christian. In the Middle Ages, though, besides non-Christians, it was also used of rustic peasantry of any religion, including Christians. Thus there is some ambiguity over whether the personal name Pagan started as a rather abusive nickname for the child of a clodhopping serf, or for a child who had not been baptized. it can also mean the son of a pagan immigrant – a Jew, a Moor, a Persian – someone whose very existence is now only hinted at in this fascinating surname. A test on the Y- chromosomes of people called Paine could now tell readily whether their surname-lines originated within or outside Europe.

By the 12th century, Payn had become a popular “Christian” name, its original meaning(s) completely forgotten. Sir Payn Roet, father-in-law both of Geoffrey Chaucer and John of Gaunt, is a familiar example.

Examples of the surname go right back to Doomsday Book (1086), with Edmundus Filius (“son of”) Pagen and Radulfus or Pagenel, both in Somerset. We find Robert Pain in Hampshire in 1200, Ralph Payn in 1221 and Roberd le fliz Payeng, also called filz Payn in Lancashire in 1305.

The best known Paine must be Tom Paine (1737-1809), son of Thetford staymaker, who became one of the leading polemicists of the American War of Independence, the author of The Rights of man, and curiously enough, a leading advocate of iron bridges as a means of bettering human society.