The Ori­gins of English Sur­names

By Joslin Fi­ennes

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - THE GUIDE -

( Robert Hale, 208 pages, £14.99) One ap­proaches this book with trep­i­da­tion, its ti­tle echo­ing PH Reaney’s land­mark work of 1967 with its pages of man­u­script ref­er­ences.

How­ever, Fi­ennes’ book is not a his­tory of Eng­land through sur­names, nor a his­tory of English sur­names. Though read­able and en­ter­tain­ing, it is per­haps the last of a cen­turies’ old tra­di­tion rooted in philol­ogy and et­y­molo­gies.

What’s miss­ing? Our knowl­edge has been sharp­ened by DNA-based sur­name stud­ies (many through the Guild of One-Name Stud­ies) and com­puter-based dis­tri­bu­tion map­ping such as Archer’s Bri­tish 19th Cen­tury Sur­name At­las.

By the time 2017 comes around it will be trans­formed when Ox­ford Univer­sity Press pub­lishes its Dic­tio­nary of Fam­ily Names in Bri­tain and Ire­land, the fruit of an eight-year in­ves­ti­ga­tion of 60,000 sur­names in the 1881 census.

Fi­ennes men­tions nonene of th­ese in her In­tro­duc­tion and the Bib­li­og­ra­phy also makes no men­tion of more re­cent sur­veys by Red­monds and Ken­nett.

Soon our idea of a sur­name’s ori­gins from the fa­mil­iar “could be from” will move to the more defini­tive “is from”.

So it be­comes more than a lit­tle frus­trat­ing to read al­most a page on why Knight “is a tricky name to clas­sify” when what we now want to know is why it pre­dom­i­nates in south­ern Eng­land and Scot­land, but less so else­where.

Chris Pomery is a his­to­rian

and the au­thor of

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