The origins of more than 45,000 surnames have been revealed by a new study.
A four-year project investigating the history and geographical distribution of family names found almost 40,000 were native to Britain and Ireland.
The study’s authors said they had explained 8,000 surnames for the first time.
Project leader, Prof Richard Coates, said the list was “more detailed and accurate” than those before it.
The team, led by the University of the West of England, analysed sources dating from the 11th to the 19th Century to fully explain the origins of the names.
It found 80% of the most common surnames were native to the UK and Ireland, among them:
- Smith (more than 400,000 bearers according to the 1881 census, compared with 500,000 today)
- Jones (more than 300,000 in 1881; currently 400,000)
- Williams (just over 200,000 in 1881, nearly 300,000 now)
- Brown and Taylor (both just under 200,000 in 1881, now more than 250,000)
- Johnson (just over 100,000 in 1881, now more than 150,000)
- Lee (just under 50,000 in 1881, now nearly 84,000)
“Some surnames have origins that are occupational – obvious examples are Smith and Baker; less obvious ones are Beadle, Rutter, and Baxter,” Prof Coates said.
“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.”
Surnames study: Key findings
surnames in the dictionary
native to Britain and Ireland
50% of the 20,000 most common names come from places, like Leicester, Sutton and Green
23% are relationship names, like Dawson (son of Daw) and Phelps (son of Philip)
19% are nicknames, like Fox, Longbones and Goodfellow
8% are occupational or status names, like Tanner (tanner of skins) and Webster (weaver)
Prof Coates said the remainder came from a diverse range of cultures and languages of immigrants who settled in the country from the 16th Century onwards.
One of those included for the first time is Farah – a rare English name recorded with just five bearers in the 1881 Census who lived in Middlesex and northern England.
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The name was derived from the northern pronunciation of the much better known Farrer, based on the occupational name from Middle English, ‘ferrour’ meaning ironworker or blacksmith.
Ferrour is itself a borrowing of the Old French word, ferreor.
Although it is rare as an English family name, it is more common among Muslim families. The Arabic word of farah means joy, happiness and delight.
Another name identified for the first time was Li, the most common Chinese name in the UK.
There were over 9,000 bearers in 2011, not counting those who spell it Lee, which will multiply the number considerably.
Researchers found it has at least six different origins in a range of Chinese dialects, including ‘plum’, ‘chestnut’, ‘black’, ‘fortunate’, and ‘strict’.
One of the most common Indian surnames, Patel, was a status name from a Hindu and Parsi name for a village herdsman.
The findings have been published in the Oxford English Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland.
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