Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation

This amazing new research can reveal the origin of your surname


Something about names is inherently fascinating. Few of us can resist the lure of finding out what a random celebrity has called their baby, while learning the most popular names of different countries around the world is weirdly compelling.

And if you’re as much of a name geek as us, you might be interested to learn that a major new study has revealed the origins of almost 500,000 surnames in Britain – from the common to the obscure, and stretching as far back as the Norman Conquest.

The £1.5 million, four-year study into the origins of 46,500 names showed that the most common surname in Britain and Ireland is Smith, currently used by more than half a million people. It’s closely followed by Jones (used by 400,000 people) and nearly 300,000 people named Williams.

matt smith

Matt Smith: owner of the most popular surname in Britain and Ireland.

Some names have been around for centuries, while other more recent arrivals have had their origins explained for the first time in the research, which has been published in the new Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland.

Around half of British surnames are derived from places, such as Sutton or Green, while just under 25% are ‘relationship names’, like Jackson or Thompson.

Read more: Très bien: these are the 20 most fashionable French baby names

One in five names began life as a nickname, such as Fox, Goodfellow or the rather brilliant Longbones. One in 12 describes the original user’s occupation, like Baker, Smith (e.g. a blacksmith or silversmith), or Rutter (an old word for ‘musician’).


Emilia Fox: so-called because her ancestors were foxy (maybe).

The study showed that 80% of British surnames still have their origins in the UK, but that Britain’s surnames have also been influenced by waves of immigration since at least the arrival of French Huguenot refugees in the 16th century.

Read more: These are the most unpopular baby names of 2016 so far

Other family names you hear in the UK today could have arrived on these shores thanks to Dutch, Jewish, Indian, Arabic, Korean, Chinese, Japanese and African settlers.

If you’re keen to get your hands on your own copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, the price might give you pause for thought: the massive tome retails for £400. However, it’s hoped that local libraries will purchase a copy – so that you can go and check out the origin of your own surname.

Images: iStock, Rex Features


santa forgot.jpg

Everyone needs to watch this Alzheimer’s Christmas 2016 advert

mean girls.jpg

Mean Girls star reveals baby girl’s totally fetch name


Baby names inspired by feminist icons


Why anxiety makes it harder to follow your intuition

It can have a paralysing effect on decision-making

by Anna Brech
19 Oct 2017

“Why all men must work to stamp out sexual harassment and abuse”

In wake of the Weinstein allegations, one writer argues why men need to be counted

19 Oct 2017

Drinking alcohol can help with foreign language skills, study finds

Anyone for a dash of Dutch courage?

by Anna Brech
19 Oct 2017

Muggles can attend the Harry Potter Yule Ball in the actual Great Hall

You even get your own wand!

by Megan Murray
19 Oct 2017

Walking for just 17 minutes a day has a dramatic effect on your health

Want to prolong your life? A bit of gentle exercise is better than none at all

by Anna Brech
19 Oct 2017

SATC writer admits the team argued over Carrie's unrealistic lifestyle

“I like my money where I can see it – hanging in my closet”

by Megan Murray
19 Oct 2017

WhatConsentMeansToMe hashtag sparks vital conversation on Twitter

“No matter what I wear, no matter what you think – no means no”

by Anna Brech
19 Oct 2017

The Netflix shows you’re most likely to devour in 24 hours

You, my friend, are a ‘binge racer’

by Nicola Colyer
18 Oct 2017

There’s a psychological reason you’re in love with Starbucks’ red cups

It’s not just because Christmas is coming

by Gemma Crisp
18 Oct 2017

Have a wonderfully macabre Christmas with this anti-advent calendar

Bah humbug

by Megan Murray
18 Oct 2017