The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (FaNBI) provides detailed information about the history, linguistic origins and geographical distribution of 45,600 family names found in Britain and Ireland, including all those that had 100 or more bearers in 2011 (a further project is investigating names with between 20 and 100 bearers). It relies on previous reference works in the field, but draws on new data and current research to correct some of their interpretations. Shaping FaNBI’s inclusion policy around the 2011 distribution ensures that surnames from around the world are represented to reflect Britain and Ireland’s current and historic ethnic diversity. At the same time, information from the 1881 census ensures that names that were established in the UK by that point can be distinguished from those introduced through more recent immigration. The introduction notes that just over half of all entries are variant spellings, but approximately 14,000 of the main entries have an English or Northern French origin, 2000 a Scottish origin, 2000 Irish, 300 Welsh and 200 Cornish. These groupings are further subdivided in the introductory discussion. For example, English family names fall into the following groups in descending order of frequency: locative names, relationship names, occupational names, status names and nicknames. In each case, historical and social factors in their development are discussed, such as the higher frequency of toponymic surnames in the north of England as a result of the later adoption of stable hereditary surnames in the north, after the point by which the breakdown of the feudal system had led to increased demographic mobility. The introduction provides a fascinating overview of the history of family names in Britain and Ireland and of research into them, but I will resist the temptation and challenge of summarizing it here. The categorizations of the introduction are consistently used within entries, so anyone looking up a particular name would be able to find the relevant section of the introduction with a little thought. Most dictionary-users, unfortunately, do not make full use of the front matter. Instead of summarizing it, this review explores the dictionary’s contents using a selection of 31 of my colleagues’ surnames at the University of Leicester, which is situated in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the UK. What follows therefore represents my experience as user of the dictionary, and I should begin by saying that it is generally clear and easy to navigate, with a notable absence of specialist abbreviations. The many cross-references ensure that the appropriate main entry can be quickly located. Of the 31 names sampled, only one was so infrequent in 2011 that it has not made it into FaNBI (Alimahomed). Groak was presumably omitted for the same reason, but the variant spelling, Groarke was included on the strength of 208 holders in 2011 and I have assumed below that they are cognate. Of the remaining names, 2 are Hindi in origin (Amlani, Patel) and one is probably from French via Saint Kitts and Nevis (Liburd). The remainder are all from Britain and Ireland and they are variously described as English, Scottish and Irish. I would have liked to see clearer distinctions between the English, French and Old Norse elements from Middle English. For example Challinor is described as an ‘occupational name from an agent derivative of Middle English chaloun ‘blanket’, for a maker or dealer in blankets or coverlets, and named after the original place of manufacture, Châlons-sur-Marne’. Similarly, the origin of Crosthwaite is ‘English: locative name from any of the places named Crosthwaite in Cumb, Westm, and NR Yorks’. It may be distracting from a family history perspective to be told explicitly that Challinor is etymologically French and Crosthwaite Scandinavian, because this provides no guarantee as to the geographical origin of their bearers, but it is useful information for other kinds of research. Relationship names accounted for at least half of this small sample, including those formed with -son (Davidson, Dickenson (from Dicun, a pet form of Richard), Gibson (from Gibb, a pet form of Gilbert), Hudson (from the Middle English personal name Hudde), Pearson (from Middle English Per(e) or Piers)), Mc- ‘son of’ (Groark (Mag Ruairc, from a Scandinavian personal name, Hrothrekr), McCaw (from Adhamih (Adam)), McDonald (from Dhomhnall (Donald)) and O- ‘descendant of’ (O’Connor, from Conchobhar). Other relationship names included Amlani (‘descendant of’ Aml), Christie (from Christi(a)n), Coleman, Daly and Woodliffe (from the Old English personal name *Wuduleof). Roberts may be genitive, which would suggest that it is a relationship name, but the -s could be a post-medieval excrescence. Scott could be a relationship name (from Scot), but it is more commonly an ethnic name meaning ‘a Scot, an Irishman, a Gaelic speaker’. Six of the names are derived from place names (Baddiley, Crosthwaite, Liburd, Tidmarsh, Trafford, Wheldon), usually found most frequently in 1881 close to the place from which the name was derived. Five names relate to occupations or statuses (Challinor, Patel ‘a village headman’, Porter ‘a doorkeeper’ or ‘a carrier of burdens’, Taylor ‘a maker of clothes’, Walker ‘one who trampled cloth in a bath of lye or kneaded it, in order to strengthen it’). Brown is an example of a name with multiple possible origins, having originated as a nickname for someone with brown hair or a dark complexion, as well as from the Middle English personal name Brun, the Irish or Scottish relationship name from Ó Duinn and from the Anglicization of Irish Mac an Bhreitheamhnaigh, German Braun or Yiddish Bron. For most of these names, examples of early bearers are given, which makes it possible to assert that O’Connor appears to be the earliest in this unrepresentative sample, being recorded from the eleventh century. The latest for which a date is provided is Liburd, from the seventeenth century. Amlani and Patel postdate this, but no date or information about early bearers is provided for these name or for McCaw. Although some explanation of the selection process for these early bearers is provided in the introduction, it is not explicitly stated that the earliest evidence is necessarily included. Comparison between the 2011 and 1881 data suggest that domestic population movement into Leicester has largely been from Scotland, the North of England, and from Ireland. None of these names were characteristically from Leicestershire in the 1881 census, at which time the most southerly of these names was Tidmarsh, found largely in Warwickshire, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. Apart from this, there is little evidence of northerly migration in this sample. The notes observing that Brown, Davidson and Taylor have all been used as anglicized versions of Jewish, German and Slavic names suggests that surname evidence could obscure family or demographic history for the unsuspecting user. One of the names in my sample, Beck, is presented as being of English origins but in this case was the non-cognate German surname. In addition to details about the origins of individual names, FaNBI’s numerical data offers fascinating insights into demographic movement and change. Although the numbers do not provide answers in themselves, they raise numerous intriguing questions. The names surveyed range from 110 holders in 2011 (Baddiley) to 257782 (Brown), and from none in 1881 (Amlani, Liburd, Patel) to 189341 (Taylor). These names were all held by more individuals in 2011 than in 1881, ranging from a 9% increase for Crosthwaite to a 2337% increase for Brown. Percentages cannot be calculated for those names not found in 1881, but Amlani had 213 holders in 2011 and Liburd 539. With 101463 holders, Patel was the fifth most frequent name in this sample by 2011. Six of these names were not found in Ireland at all in 2011 (Amlani, Baddiley, Groark, Liburd, Tidmarsh, Woodliffe), with the rest ranging from 4 (Challinor, Wheldon) to 195410 (Brown). Most are considerably less frequent in Ireland, as would be expected, but notwithstanding the difference in population size, Daly and O’Connor, both Irish in origin, have (respectively) 20% and 40% more holders in Ireland than in Britain. As noted above, FaNBI is clearly set out and easy to navigate. Its contents are accessible and, where necessary, well explained. Multiple cross-references are essential in a work of this type, but I found one example where these were unhelpful. Wheldon is provided with two origins: English: see Wheildon. English: see Wheeldon. However, on consulting the entry for Whieldon, the user is directed to ‘see Wheeldon’. In a work of this size there are sure to be a few slips of this type, and it is to be hoped that it was bad luck that one fell into my small sample. The digital version of FaNBI, available through Oxford Reference Online, includes all of the front matter and an alphabetical index to the entries. The index can be navigated by browsing, by using the alphabetical tags, and by typing in the name or its first few letters. It will undoubtedly be more popular with student-users, who are more accustomed to online searching than to heaving heavy volumes off library shelves. A significant bonus in the online edition is the provision for each name of a map showing its distribution in the 1881 census. © 2017 Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
International Journal of Lexicography – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 23, 2017
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