The Origins of English Surnames
By Joslin Fiennes
( 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