We are creating a unified UKRI website that brings together the existing research council, Innovate UK and Research England websites.
If you would like to be involved in its development let us know.

What does your family name mean and where do you come from?

Date: 15/05/2020

Friday 15 May is the United Nations International Day of Families. To mark the day, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Oxford University Press are providing free access to the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, starting on the 15 and continuing for a week, until 21 May. The Dictionary can be accessed here.

Many of us are currently unable to see extended family members but discovering what our family names mean and where we have come from is fascinating to find out and fun to share. With over 45,000 entries, The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland brings together a wealth of information about every surname that has more than 100 bearers (and more than 20 in the 1881 census) including where names originated, names of early bearers, geographical distribution, and variant spellings.

The Oxford Dictionary is based on a research project – Family Names of the United Kingdom - funded by the AHRC and led by Professor Richard Coates and a team of researchers based at UWE Bristol that ran between 2010 and 2016.

Perhaps your family name started out as a nickname, for example, Longbones or Goodfellow. Or maybe you are named after a place, think Green, Sutton or Leicester. Is your name associated with a particular occupation? Maybe you’re a Tanner, Webster or Franklin. And can you guess the most common family names in the country? Yes, it’s Smith, followed by Jones, Williams, Brown, Taylor, Johnson and Lee.

Whatever you family name, we would love to hear from you. What does your name mean and what does it mean to you? Why not get involved by posting a photograph or image that sums up what your name means to you at #familynames2020

Sarah Williams, Editor of Who Do You Think You Are? magazine, says: “The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland is the most authoritative resource for anyone wanting to understand the origin of their family name. Having free access to this huge body of research will delight family historians across the globe.”

Mike Collins, Head of Public Engagement at the Arts and Humanities Research Council, said: “This amazing database covering tens of thousands of family names was made possible by careful and painstaking research over many years by a team of researchers at UWE Bristol.

“It feels so appropriate to give people across the UK and Ireland free access to this searchable database for a week as we celebrate the international day of families. At a time when many family members are apart it will help bring people together as they discuss the biographies of their surnames.”

A few examples to get us started (abbreviated from the full entries):


Currently there are in the region of 151518 Johnsons in Great Britain and 2307 in Ireland. A big rise on the 1881 census figures which records 99902, largely living in North and Central England. The name stems from the personal name John, plus the patronymic marker – son with one of the earliest recordings of the name dating back to a John Jonessone who lived in Surrey in 1287.


There are currently in the region of 1648 Sturgeons in Great Britain, and 133 in Ireland. In 1881, there were in the region of 1208, many of them living in Suffolk. The name originates as a nickname, from the fish with the earliest bearer being a Mr William Sturjon whose name was recorded in a document in 1281.


Currently there are in the region of 94864 Moores in Great Britain and 17084 in Ireland. The name stems from the Middle English word more, which meant moor, marsh or fen. A topographic name given to someone living alongside a moor. Early bearers of the name date right back to William de More, recorded in the Doomsday Book in 1086.


Currently there are in the region of 1028 Whittys in Great Britain and 569 in Ireland. In 1881 there were just 400 living mainly in Dorset and Wexford. The name is a locative one ‘dweller by the white hedge or the white (forest) enclosure’ from the Middle English whit and heie, perhaps in reference to whitehorn (hawthorn) hedging. The name has been recorded in Ireland since the 13th century. In Britain, Nicholas de la Wytheg is an early bearer of the name, recorded in 1279 in Hundred Rolls (Oxfordshire).


Currently there are in the region of 500 Starmers in Great Britain and 15 in Ireland. The number hasn’t changed much from the 483 living in Britain in 1881, largely in the Northants, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire regions. The name is a locative one, from Starmore in Westrill (Leicestershire), recorded as Stormeorde in 1086. An early bearer is of Starmer is an Amy Starmer in 1619.

Return to news list