UWE launches largest ever study of UK family names

Issue date: 14 December 2009


What does your name mean? Where does it come from? Has it changed over the centuries?

A major new research project led by the University of the West of England (UWE, Bristol) is set to create the largest ever database of the UK's family surnames. The database, which will contain the meanings and origins of up to 150,000 UK surnames, is to be made publicly available and will be of enormous interest to home genealogists, family historians, and anyone interested in learning more about their family name.

The research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) with a grant worth in total £834,350. The project will be carried out with the technical collaboration of the Faculty of Informatics at Masaryk University, Brno, in the Czech Republic.

The research will be carried out by Professor Richard Coates at the Bristol Centre for Linguistics at UWE with lead researcher Dr Patrick Hanks, an eminent lexicographer who is a visiting professor at UWE.

This is the largest project in scale and scope ever undertaken in the UK on family names. There are currently approximately 150,000 surnames in Britain - including very common ones such as Miller or Williams -but there are also large numbers of uncommon surnames with a hundred bearers or fewer.

The study will not focus exclusively on names of English and Scots origin, but will also include names of Norman French, Gaelic, Welsh, and Cornish origin as well as Huguenot, Jewish and later immigrant names.
Using published and unpublished resources, dating from as far back as the 11th century, a team of researchers will collect information about individual names such as when and where they were recorded and how they have been spelled. This information will be used to give new and detailed explanations of those names. This new knowledge will be far more reliable and up to date than that found in the books on surnames currently available.

This resource will be a permanently publicly accessible database that people can use for a range of information. Each name will have separate fields which include: the meaning of the surname; the linguistic origin, the geographical origin and the distribution. In addition there will be information about the social origins of names. For example it is well known that the earliest surnames of the landholding classes tended more than those of other classes to be descriptions or names of places, whilst those of small tenants and serfs included a high proportion of names ending in –s and –son like Roberts and Jackson.

Richard Coates explains, “There is widespread interest in family names and their history. Our project will use the most up to date techniques and evidence available to create a more detailed and accurate resource than those currently available. For example new statistical methods for linking family names to locations will enable us to provide more accurate and detailed origins for names.

“Some names can have origins that are occupational – obvious examples are Smith and Baker. Or names can be linked to a place for example the names Hill or Green (which related to village greens). Surnames which are 'patronymic' are those which enshrine 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.

“I have always been fascinated by names for people, places and institutions. Surnames are part of our identity, so most people are interested in knowing about their names. My main interest is in the linguistic side, in the language of origin and the original meaning of the names, but this research is interdisciplinary drawing also on history, family history, place-name study, official statistics and genetics.

“Our database will describe the origins of names, both in linguistic terms and also how they arose in the first place. By listing the spellings of the name with a date, we will be able to see how names have changed over the years and in some cases this will also give us a snapshot of social history and mobility. My own name 'Coates' for example literally means 'cottages' in Middle English. It is also applied as a place-name and in my research I have discovered that 'Cotes' is the name of a small place in my grandfather's ancestral county of Staffordshire, so that's probably where my surname comes from.

“Names still tend to cluster where they originated, so some that originated in the West Country can still be found in numbers in the region today, for example Batten, Clist, Yeo and Vagg.”

Professor Rick Rylance, Chief Executive of the AHRC says, “As someone who has always been curious about my own surname, I welcome this project. It has great potential to illuminate crucial aspects of personal, family and social history which will be of interest to academics and the public alike.”

The project will be supported by consultants who are the top authorities on names in those languages which have given us our surnames such as: Old Scandinavian, Anglo-Norman French, Welsh, Cornish, Gaelic, Yiddish, and more recently other languages such as Polish, Chinese, Arabic and Hindi/Urdu.

The project will begin in April 2010 and will last four years.

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