New dictionary reveals stories behind 45,600 surnames

By Jon Bauckham, 17 November 2016 - 12:55am

The origins of thousands of surnames found in the UK and Ireland have been uncovered following the completion of an ambitious four-year project

Dictionary of Family Names
The dictionary is available as a four-volume print edition, eBook or via a digital library subscription

The hidden meanings behind thousands of surnames have been revealed following the completion of a major study.

Published today (Thursday 17 November), the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland contains detailed information about the linguistic origins of more than 45,600 common and rare surnames.

This includes surnames native to the British Isles, as well as approximately 5,000 names introduced by immigrant populations since the 16th century.

Crucially for family historians, each entry also reveals how many bearers of the name were recorded on the 1881 and 2011 censuses, as well as its geographical distribution over time.

Funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council and led by academics from the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, the creation of the dictionary took more than four years of painstaking research by a team of linguists, medieval historians, lexicographers and regional name specialists.

Much of the evidence cited in the resource is completely new, drawn from previously untapped medieval and modern sources such as tax records, church registers, and census returns.

As well as correcting erroneous entries featured in previous surname dictionaries such as Hislop and Starbuck, the resource also contains more than 8,000 names that have never been properly defined before.

This includes ‘Twelvetrees’, which has recently come into the spotlight due to the success of England rugby union international, Billy Twelvetrees.

Although the surname was most prominent in south Lincolnshire at the time of the 1881 Census, Twelvetrees is believed to be an altered form of ‘Weldrick’, a locative surname from the village of Wheldrake in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Interestingly, the dictionary also features a detailed description of the surname ‘Farah’, which has both English and Muslim origins.

While Somali-born athlete Mo Farah has made the surname famous today, an English version with exactly the same spelling was held by just five people in the 1881 Census.

Whereas the Muslim name is derived from the Arabic word farah, meaning “joy, happiness and delight”, its English counterpart instead originates from a northern pronunciation of the occupational title farrier. This itself comes from the Middle English word ferrour, meaning "ironworker, blacksmith".

Mo Farah (Photo: FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)
Mo Farah's surname has separate English and Arabic definitions listed in the dictionary (Photo: FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

Professor Richard Coates, who edited the dictionary along with UWE colleague Professor Patrick Hanks and Professor Peter McClure from the University of Nottingham, said the research team used “the most up-to-date evidence and techniques in order to create a more detailed and accurate resource than those currently available”.

He added: “Some surnames have origins that are occupational – obvious examples are Smith and Baker; less obvious ones are Beadle, Rutter, and Baxter.

"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.”

The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland is available to purchase as a four-volume print edition, eBook, or via a library subscription to the Oxford Reference service for a UK retail price of £400.

However, the dictionary will also be accessible free of charge at libraries that purchase the resource. Members of the public can request that their library acquire a copy by completing an online form.

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