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UK's largest ever study of family names reveals origins of 45,600 surnames

Date: 17/11/2016


We all have a surname, but how many of us know anything about its origin and history? A major Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded research project led by a team at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) has unveiled the UK and Ireland’s largest and most comprehensive collection of family names published by Oxford University Press.

The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland is published today 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 for free via public libraries that purchase the resource. Members of the public can request that their library purchase the dictionary by completing the form at https://global.oup.com/academic/library-recommend/

Farah, Twelvetrees and Li (Lee) are amongst the 8,000 family names explained for the first time ever, alongside corrections to previous explanations such as Starbuck and Hislop in the newly published Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland. The result of a four year detailed investigation of the linguistic origins, history, and geographical distribution of 45,600 most frequent family names in Britain and Ireland, the print and online database, offers an explanation for all names from the very common to many rarer names with 100 current bearers.

Nearly 40,000 family names are native to Britain and Ireland, while the remainder reflect the diverse languages and cultures of immigrants that have settled from the sixteenth century to the present day: including French Huguenot, Dutch, Jewish, Indian, Muslim (Arabic), Korean, Japanese, Chinese and African.

Samuel Lambshead, Strategy and Development Manager at the Arts and Humanities Research Council, said, “This amazing four-year project collecting the origins of tens of thousands of family names in the UK and Ireland is a classic example of the impact and wider public benefit of high quality research. It will be a wonderful resource for generations to come.

The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland is edited by Patrick Hanks, Professor, University of the West of England, Richard Coates, Professor, University of the West of England, and Peter McClure, Professor, University of Nottingham.

Professor Patrick Hanks and Professor Richard Coates have led a team of eminent researchers including historical linguists, medieval historians, lexicographers and expert advisers on Irish, Scottish, Welsh and recent immigrant names. The team analysed records from published and unpublished sources dating from the 11th to the 19th century to enable new and detailed explanations of names that is much more reliable and up to date than those currently available.

Each entry includes the current and 1881 frequencies of the name, 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 the evidence is new, drawn from previously untapped medieval and modern sources such as tax records, church registers, and census returns.

Professor Richard Coates, says, “There is widespread interest in family names and their history. Our research uses the most up-to-date evidence and techniques in order to create a more detailed and accurate resource than those currently available. We have paid particular attention, wherever possible, to linking family names to locations.

“Some surnames have origins that are occupational – obvious examples are Smith and Baker; less obvious ones are Beadle, Rutter, and Baxter. Other names can be linked to a place, for example Hill or Green (which relates to a village green). Surnames which are 'patronymic' are those which originally enshrined the father's name – such as Jackson, or Jenkinson. There are also names where the origin describes the original bearer such as Brown, Short, or Thin – though Short may in fact be an ironic ‘nickname’ surname for a tall person.”

Professor Patrick Hanks adds, “It’s only with computer technology for sorting and comparing hundreds of millions of digitised records that enough electronic data is available and organisable so as to enable researchers to draw conclusions with confidence about the origin and history of each surname taking account of factors such as its geographical distribution and local dialect. Thanks to historical and distributional evidence that was previously unavailable, we’ve also been able to explain hundreds of new surnames and correct many widely believed errors.”

For more information – visit Family Names of the United Kingdom


For further information, images or interviews, please contact the UWE Bristol Press Office on 0117 328 2208 or pressoffice@uwe.ac.uk. Our press release archive can be accessed here.

Professor Richard Coates, Professor Peter McClure and Dr Harry Parkin will be available for interview. Professor Patrick Hanks will be available for interview after 21 November.

Notes to editors

  • Examples of surnames defined in the dictionary (Word, 20KB)
  • News film – this is available to embed into online content, after 00.01 17 November and raw footage can be sent through upon request
  • FANBI Statistics (Word, 13KB)
  • Additional quotes – below:
    Professor Peter McClure, the dictionary’s chief etymologist, adds, “The modern appearance of a family name is not always a good guide to its origin. For example, Levison looks like a Jewish name meaning 'son of Levi', and sometimes it is, but in north-east England it is a colloquial development of the Scottish locative surname Livingstone, while Edgoose (historically a south Lincolnshire surname) has nothing to do with geese but is a sixteenth-century pronunciation, influenced by folk etymology, of the name Edecus, a rare pet form of Edith. These are new explanations, discovered through researching the historical records of the places where the surnames originated and developed over time. The increasing availability of such records and the work of family historians have provided the keys to all the new explanations in this dictionary.”
  • Full details of research team
    Project team
    • Editor-in-chief: Patrick Hanks
    • Principal investigator: Richard Coates
    • Principal etymologist: Peter McClure
    • Research Associates: Paul Cullen, Simon Draper, Harry Parkin,
    • Duncan Probert
    • Researchers, Irish names: Kay Muhr, Liam Ó hAisibéil
    • Editorial Research Associate: Kate Hardcastle
    • Database manager: Adam Rambousek
    • Project coordinator: Deborah Cole
    • Editorial Assistant: Jennifer Scherr
    Consultants and contributors
    • Database population: Richard Webber
    • Census Analysis: Steve Archer
    • Scottish names: Matthew Hammond, Tom Turpie, Thomas
    • Clancy, Simon Taylor
    • Welsh names: Prys Morgan
    • Cornish names: Oliver Padel
    • Jewish names: Daniel Morgan-Thomas
    • Indian names: Rocky Miranda
    • Arabic and Muslim names: James Hodsdon
    • Chinese names: Horace Chen
    • Korean names: Gary Mackelprang
    • Nigerian names: Eunice Fajobi
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: history, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, languages, design, heritage, area studies, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98 million to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits and contributes to the economic success of the UK but also to the culture and welfare of societies around the globe. For more information visit: www.ahrc.ac.uk or follow @ahrcpress on twitter.
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