A major new research project led by the University of the West of England (UWE) is aiming 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 the researchers hope it will be an invaluable resources for anyone wanting to find out about their family history.
The research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) with a grant worth £834,350 and will be done in collaboration with 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.
Prof Coates (or ‘cottages’ in Middle English) said he was by the chance to work on something in which he had great personal interest.
“There is widespread interest in family names and their history,” he said. “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.
“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.
“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.”
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, the researchers will collect information about individual names such as when and where they were recorded and how they have been spelled.
The project is expected to begin in April next year and a permanently publicly accessible database that people can use will be ready to use by 2014.