A new project from the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) in the UK has sorted through a database of surnames in the UK and Ireland with the aim of tracing their linguistic origins, history, and geographical distribution.
They managed to analyze 45,600 of the most frequent family names in the UK and Ireland, including 8,000 family names that have never been explained. Many of these reflect the diverse cultures of immigrants that have settled in the UK over the centuries, including French, Dutch, Scandinavian, Jewish, Indian, Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and African influences.
You can check out their research and find your own surname through the new Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland website, which is free to the public until the end of November with username “fanbi” and the password “onlineaccess”. The database contains every surname that currently has more than 100 bearers in the UK and Ireland.
In order, they found the most common surnames to be: Smith, Jones, Williams, Brown and Taylor, Johnson, and Lee.
Their project also explains the origin of the surnames, which have increased in recent decades through immigration. For example, Patel is a particularly common name among British Asians, with an estimated 100,000 bearers in the UK. It originated as a Hindu and Parsi word for a village headman.
Professor Richard Coates, project leader, explains: “There is widespread 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. We have paid particular attention, wherever possible, to linking family names to locations.
“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.”