What’s in a name?

Well, quite a lot, it would seem. Dr Simon Draper has for the past six years been a member of a team carrying out intensive in-depth research into the origins and meanings of British surnames. At the November meeting of the Society he gave a fascinating presentation on this research and its results, to be published in a new Oxford dictionary on the subject.

Before 1066 there were no surnames. Gradually French place names were adopted by the knight class. Later, some mediaeval surnames or nicknames appeared, usually locative, or topographical eg Ash meaning lives near an ash tree, but also occupational, status, relationship or behavioural eg Noble. These were not necessarily permanent and many people changed their names occasionally such as adopting an employer’s name. They were then recorded as one name plus an alias.

In the 16th century parish records were introduced giving rise to new problems through spellings and aliases. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Welsh began to introduce names as the son of ... and during the 19th century thousands of Irish immigrants brought yet more new names; likewise multi-ethnic immigration in the 20th century. Nonetheless, the research shows that in many cases (60000 names are listed) a surname derives from just one family as DNA testing can now prove.

Previous dictionaries are not reliable compared with this new work which is based on stunningly thorough research. The distribution of names, especially noting where there are large clusters, is a good starting point. However, linguistic meanings and changes of spelling mean the subject is very complicated. This project is an excellent example of geography, history and linguistics working together to produce a fascinating picture of British surnames and Dr Draper’s superb presentation evoked great interest in the subject.