Thursday, November 17, 2016

Dictionary of 50,000 surnames and their origins published

Four-year study by linguists and historians of British and Irish records back to 11th century analyses family names

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked as she and Romeo tried to puzzle their way around the troubling problem of their warring families. Well, plenty, the most detailed investigation into surnames in the UK and Ireland has found.
A team of researchers has spent four years studying the meanings and origins of almost 50,000 surnames, from the most common to the highly obscure.

Some names have been around for many centuries while other more recent arrivals are explained for the first time in the work, the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, which is published on Thursday.
Richard Coates, professor of linguistics at the University of the West of England (UWE), said there was great interest in the origins of family names. (His own may stem from one of the numerous places called Coates, or from the Old English cot, for cottage or workman’s hut.)

About half of the 20,000 most common names are locative, meaning they come from places; a quarter are relationship names, such as Dawson; and a fifth are nicknames.

About 8% are occupational, including less familiar ones such as Beadle (church official), Rutter (musician), and Baxter (baker). The nicknames are not always straightforward: the early Shorts may have earned theirs because they were tall.
On the team were historical linguists, medieval historians, lexicographers and expert advisers on Irish, Scottish, Welsh and recent immigrant names. They analysed records from published and unpublished sources dating from the 11th to the 19th century to pinpoint new and detailed explanations for names. They looked at names that could be found in just about every corner of the British Isles, and ones attached to as few as 100 people.

Each entry includes the frequencies of the name at the time of the 1881 and 2011 censuses, its main location in Britain and Ireland, its language or culture of origin, and, wherever possible, an explanation supported by historical evidence for the name. Much of this evidence is new, drawn from previously untapped medieval and modern sources such as tax records, church registers and census returns.
The study concludes that nearly 40,000 family names are native to Britain and Ireland, while the remainder reflect the diverse languages and cultures of immigrants who have settled since the 16th century, including French Huguenot, Dutch, Jewish, Indian, Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and African arrivals.
AHRC has awarded UWE Bristol a further grant to continue the project so that another 15,000 surnames with just 20 current bearers or more can be included.

The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland is published in hardback print format (four volumes), ebook format and for library subscription online via Oxford Reference for a UK retail price of £400.

The dictionary will be accessible via public libraries that purchase the resource. Members of the public can request that their library purchase the dictionary by completing a form at