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What's in a surname?

It is estimated that there are around 378,000 surnames in the UK with more than one bearer. A research project funded by the AHRC and led by Professors Richard Coates and Patrick Hanks of the University of the West of England has for the last three years, been uncovering the origins, history and distribution of many of these and in doing so, is producing an extraordinary view on British history over the last thousand years.

Using published and unpublished resources dating from the 11th century onwards, including parish records, censuses and a huge database of 14th-century tax returns, the team, who have a wide range expertise in historical linguistics and onomastics, are collecting information about individual names such as when and where they were recorded, and how they have been spelled.

The main product of the research will be a database, to be published online and in print by Oxford University Press, of all the surnames with over 100 bearers, in which people will be able to find a wide range of information about each surname, including its linguistic, social and geographical origins, and its modern distribution

“The focus is to explain the linguistic history of the name,” explains Coates, “but we wanted it to be a resource that was available to family historians, so it became necessary to tie up the linguistic evidence with geographical evidence for where the name is at the moment, and to some degree where the names have been focused in the past.”

Hanks adds: “We want the database to be available and used not only by genealogists and researchers but we want it to be available to use in schools. We think it's a wonderful way for children to learn their history and language. They can start by looking at the origin and history of their own surname, and then their classmates’.”

Plus, by listing the spellings of the name with a date, users will be able to see how names have changed over the years.

The FaNUK study uses the 1881 census as its baseline, and the top 12 names in the UK at the time – all with more than 100,000 bearers - were as follows:

  1. Smith
  2. Jones
  3. Williams
  4. Brown
  5. Taylor
  6. Davies
  7. Wilson
  8. Evans
  9. Thomas
  10. Roberts
  11. Johnson
  12. Walker

Jones, Williams, Davies, Evans, Thomas and Roberts were, perhaps unsurprisingly, very common in Wales and the nearby counties.

“Johnson was surprisingly thin in Scotland,” adds Coates. “Smith and Walker were relatively absent from south-west England. Walker had to compete with Tucker and Fuller, which had the same original meaning of ‘cloth-thickener’, and Walker was mainly a name of the north and west.”

Even before the start of this project Hanks was well aware of the gap this research would fill. “I had already published on surnames, a comparative study of European surnames and American surnames, so I was aware of the sad state of surname studies in Britain, and I thought with modern computational techniques, we could improve,” he explains.

“One of the many reasons why previous scholars had shied away from surname studies was because the data was not easily available or manipulable. Contrast for example placename studies: placenames stay where they are. Most of the time you've got a fairly good idea where the place is that you're talking about. People, on the other hand, move around; they die; and they change their names. You need a huge amount of data and a good statistical model plus a computer to manipulate it, if you are going to do surname studies properly.”

There are large numbers of more uncommon names in the UK: both 'established' names which have been here for hundreds of years, and recent immigrant names, which have mostly arrived since World War II. Says Hanks: "Where reliable information is available about a rare but long-established name, we include it and explain it. However, most of these names will have to await research in a future project. 

“As for recent immigrant names, these are now a feature of multi-ethnic Britain and cannot be ignored. So our aim is to explain all the names with more than 100 present-day bearers, regardless of their geographical origin.  This means that we are working in collaboration with colleagues from other institutions who are expert in a wide range of languages."

They have also been consulting the expertise of the Guild of One-Name Studies, whose members focus their work on all the bearers of a single surname, rather than more traditional genealogical studies, which research a particular person's ancestry.

What makes this project different to any of its predecessors in the area is the scope that computerisation offers. Previous surname researchers did not have this kind of luxury, relying instead on handwritten index cards to keep their records, risking transcription errors resulting in multiple errors and fundamentally unreliable data. And as a result, they did not have an accurate picture of the relationship between surnames and localities (regions, counties, and parishes), and they were unable to track changes over time.  We are just now entering a new era of surname studies where it will be possible to do these things and more.

“Already we can look at literally hundreds of millions of records in a few minutes,” says Hanks. “We can find the earliest occurrence of each spelling in the records we're looking at We can find the earliest occurrences of each spelling and compare the geographical distribution of different spellings. Right now, our job is to look at the data we've got, much more than any previous scholar was able to look at.”

The database will also lay the foundation for future researchers' projects. “The way that we view our work is that we're setting up a framework for future scholars' more detailed studies, and to do more detailed studies that take account of geographical distribution, linguistic changes over time, social changes, and other factors like that, as well as just simple weight of numbers,” says Hanks. “

Coates hopes in the future to see studies that do “more of the same”. He reckons that future work could analyse surnames with down to around 20 bearers, explaining: “If you have a surname that apparently has only two bearers in history, then the chances are that it is a mistaken transcription of something else. There is a point where you say, 'Well, OK, we have 20 bearers of this name, it probably is a genuine name in that case, not a set of mistakes for something else'.”

Kirsty Gray, chairman of the Guild of One-Name Studies, is looking forward to seeing the final results and possible further projects, and is proud of her organisation's involvement. She enthuses: “The knowledge and expertise of Guild members coupled with the extensive linguistic awareness of the researchers and investigators at the University of the West of England will undoubtedly produce a first class database of surnames: a publication of enormous value to genealogists, family historians and lexicographers the world over.”

For further information, please go to the Family Names of the United Kingdom website.

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