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.
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.
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’).
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.
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.
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