Sunday, 13 March 2011

Surnames at the Society (written November 1999)

One of the things that have surprised me most since I started at the Society at the beginning of May has been the number and variety of British surnames. It's something that I hadn't given much thought to before. Having taught family history I was of course familiar with the theories behind the origins of surnames, that they originate in five ways (six if you include anglicised names of immigrants): by place (York), by nickname (Redman), by occupation (Fowler), by locality (Hill), and by patronymics (Richardson). The theory does not prepare one for the bewildering variety of surnames.
A quick survey of the index to surnames in the Document Collection suggests that the Society has material on about 7500 different surnames. And this is by no means complete.
Many surnames are of course variants, or start out as variants. There are supposed to be, for example, eighty variants of the surname Shakespeare. Incidentally did you know that William Shakespeare spelt his name three different ways in his will, none of which is how we know him today. The reason for this lies more in the fluidity in English spelling of the period, rather than in any uncertain in the dying Shakespeare as to his name.
Surprisingly some surnames appear to have died out: (DE) BRUGES, NETTERVILLE, KYME, for example. But it is always difficult to make generalisations. Some names are so odd that it makes you wonder how they occurred in the first place, or why the people whose names they are haven't changed them to avoid embarrassment. Some of my favourites, taken from the Document Collection index, for the letter F, are: FAIRSERVICE, FANJOY, FARKER, FARTHWAT, FEA, FEREBEE, FETTIPLACE, FIDGE, FIRMAGER, FRACKLETON, FRISBY, FROGBROOK, FUNGE, and not forgetting FUHRER.
FOWLER seems positively boring in company such as this! The seven thousand plus British surnames are of course both a boon and a curse to genealogy. It can makes it easier to trace a family with an unusual name.
Welsh family history is that much harder because there are so few surnames. In the census returns Llandrindod Wells, central Wales, for 1851 over three quarters of the town shared the same six surnames. Anybody attempting Korean genealogy may be put off by the fact that a great proportion of the population have the same surname -KIM. The very ease with which British surnames change is a curse.
In one's researches it is very easy to forget that the ancestor is probably there but under a different name. Sometimes it is easy to guess, but occasionally one is less scratching one's head at the change. 

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