What’s in a surname? New research sheds light on the origins of our second names

Michael Palin's surname is one of those investigated in the book. In the 1881 census there were 1,22

Michael Palin's surname is one of those investigated in the book. In the 1881 census there were 1,227 Palins, resident in the north-west Midlands. The surname comes from a late Middle English development of the surname Paulin. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

From Smith to Starbuck, new research reveals the origin of more than 45,000 surnames and the most popular family names in Britain.

Farah, Twelvetrees and Li are amongst the 8,000 family names explained for the first time, alongside corrections to previous explanations such as Starbuck and Hislop.

A four-year study, led by a team from the University of West of England in Bristol, has investigated the linguistic origins, history and geographical distribution of 45,600 most frequent family names in Britain and Ireland.

They found that nearly 40,000 family names are native to Britain and Ireland, while the remainder reflect the diverse languages and cultures of immigrants who have settled from the 16th century to the present day, including French Huguenot, Dutch, Jewish, Indian, Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and African.

The findings have been published in the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, which is available from today.


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Patrick Hanks and Richard Coates led a team of eminent researchers including historical linguists, medi-eval historians, lexicographers and expert advisers on Irish, Scottish, Welsh and recent immigrant names.

The team analysed records from published and unpublished sources dating from the 11th to the 19th century to enable new and detailed explanations of names that is much more reliable and up to date than those currently available.

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

Prof Coates said: 'There is wide-spread interest in family names and their history. 'Our research uses the most up-to-date evidence and techniques in order to create a more detailed and accurate resource than those currently available.'

Does your surname feature in the most popular list? Let us know in the comments.

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