A rose by any other name might smell as sweet - but would it have the same movie-star potential?

Now the meaning behind 45,000 of the UK and Ireland's most common surnames has been catalogued and included in a comprehensive dictionary following a four-year study.

The University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) team found nearly 40,000 of those most used in the UK and Ireland originate there, while others reflect the influence of immigrants from French, Dutch, Jewish, Indian, Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and African cultures.

Another 8000 names were included for the first time in the huge database that is based on previously uncovered research including tax records, church registers and census returns from the 11th to 19th century.


UWE Bristol Professor Richard Coates said they worked particularly hard to link family names to locations.

"Some surnames have origins that are occupational - obvious examples are Smith and Baker; less obvious ones are Beadle, Rutter, and Baxter. Other names can be linked to a place, for example Hill or Green (which relates to a village green).

"Surnames which are 'patronymic' are those which originally enshrined 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 - though Short may in fact be an ironic 'nickname' surname for a tall person."

Each name included in the dictionary covers nearly 2000 different variations of it, the language of origin and historical meaning.

It also includes 8000 family names explained for the first time including Farah, Twelvetrees and Li (Lee) and reveals some surprising coincidences.

Farah, for example, has both English and Arabic meanings. The English version is from Farrer meaning blacksmith or ironworker, which is derived from a French word. The Arabic version is derived from the word for joy, happiness and delight.

One of the most rare - Twelvetrees - has just 100 current bearers. In contrast the surname Lee, or Li, has thousands of people who bear the name and six different meanings including "fortunate", "strict", "plum", "chestnut" or "black".

The common Indian surname Patel is included and derived from the Hindu and Parsi word for the head of a village.

Farraday, Vardy, Clutterbuck, Redknap, Stilgoe and Toynbee are new inclusions, while others, such as Hislop, Dawkins and Palin have been corrected.

Professor Patrick Hanks said electronic databases enabled them to explain "hundreds of surnames" and correct previous errors by mapping their location.

Arts and Humanities Research Council strategy manager Samuel Lambshead said the dictionary will be a "wonderful resource" for future generations.

"We're all naturally fascinated about where our family names originate from and what meaning they might have. The boom in the last decade in genealogy and the popularity of
TV programs such as 'Who Do You Think You Are?' show that knowledge about the origins of family names is so important in helping to understand our own stories and mapping out those of our ancestors."

The results will be published in the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland with results available online at the Oxford University Press.

Famous names explained

• Beckham

(259 bearers in the 1881 Census, mainly resident in Norfolk; 516 bearers in 2011) - This is a locative surname (deriving from a place), from East or West Beckham in Norfolk. While East and West Beckham are separate parishes today, they would have made up a single settlement at the time of surname formation, known simply as Beckham. The place-name means "the homestead of a man called Becca", from the Old English personal name Becca + Old English hām "village, homestead".

• Cowell (4,269 bearers in the 1881 Census, mainly resident in Isle of Man, Lancashire, Durham, and Essex; 5,450 bearers in 2011) - this surname has multiple possible origins. In some cases, it is of Irish and Manx origin, and can derive from Gaelic Mac Cathmhaoil, meaning "son of Cathmhaol" (Cathmhaol literally means "battle chief"); Gaelic Mac Comhgaill, meaning "son of Saint Comhghal"; or a reduced form of Gaelic Mac Giolla Comhgaill, meaning "son of the devotee of Saint Comhghal". In other cases, the surname is of English origin, and can derive from either of two places called Cowhill in Lancashire and Gloucestershire, or it may be a variant form of the surname Cole, which itself has multiple origins.

(Corrected) • Dawkins (2,165 bearers in the 1881 Census, mainly resident in Hampshire, Kent and Essex, and Leicestershire; 4,205 bearers in 2011) - This is a form of the surname Dawkin with the addition of an "s" in post-medieval times, which was not uncommon in the era, when the vast majority of surnames were hereditary. Dawkin is a Middle English personal name from Daw plus the suffix "kin". Previous dictionaries have stated that the personal name Daw is a pet form of David, but in most cases it is probably a rhyming form of Raw, a Middle English version of Ralph.

• Middleton

(15,513 bearers in the 1881 Census, widespread throughout England and Scotland; 21,440 bearers in 2011) - This is a locative surname. It did not originate with a single family; it has a number of different origins, from any of numerous places called Middleton (the place-name means "middle farmstead", from Old English middel + tūn). It may also derive from one of various other places named with Old English middel + tūn, but known today as Milton; one such example is Milton in Cambridgeshire, which was recorded as Middeltune in the late 10th century.

- Additional content, Daily Mail