Family Names of the United Kingdom (FaNUK)

A major research project led by UWE, now in its final year, is set to create the largest ever database of the UK's family surnames. It contains over 320,000 surnames, of which many of the rarer names are recent immigrant names. In January 2014, AHRC awarded UWE a further grant of about £600,000 to continue the project so that all surnames in the UK with more than 20 current bearers (instead of the present 100) can be included.

Project aims

The project aims to complete a detailed investigation of the origins, history, and geographical distribution of the 45,000 most frequent surnames in the UK by March 2014. It will subsequently be made publicly available and will be of enormous interest to genealogists, family historians, social historians, historical linguists, and indeed anyone interested in learning more about family names.

The research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) with a grant worth £834,350. It is being carried out with the technical collaboration of the Faculty of Informatics at Masaryk University, Brno, in the Czech Republic, the world’s leading experts in building user-friendly editing and browsing tools for very large databases.

Professor Richard Coates at the Bristol Centre for Linguistics at UWE Bristol directs the project, with Professor Patrick Hanks, an eminent lexicographer who is a visiting professor at UWE, leading the research programme.

Project scope

This is the largest project in scale and scope ever undertaken in the UK on family names; there are currently approximately 320,000 surnames in Britain, including very common ones such as Miller or Williams, but there are also large numbers of uncommon surnames with a hundred bearers or fewer.

The study has a wide focus, including not only names of English and Scots origin but also names of Irish, Gaelic, Welsh, and Cornish origin as well as Huguenot and Jewish. Special procedures are being developed for studying recent immigrant names (i.e. those appearing after 1881) such as Indian, Chinese and a range of Muslim names, with the cooperation of overseas consultants.

Using published and unpublished resources dating from the 11th century onwards, a team of researchers with expertise in historical linguistics and onomastics are collecting information about individual names such as when and where they were recorded and how they have been spelled. This information is being used to give new and detailed explanations of those names, adding knowledge which will be far more reliable and up to date than that found in the books on surnames currently available.

Public access

The main product of the research will be a database accessible like an online dictionary, to be published by Oxford University Press, who also intend to publish it in book form. Each entry has separate fields which include: the meaning of the surname, the linguistic origin, the geographical origin, the distribution at the time of the 1881 census, and the modern numbers and distribution.

In addition, there will be information about the social origins of some names. For example, it is well known that the earliest surnames of the landholding classes tended - more than those of other classes - to be descriptions or names of places, whilst those of small tenants and serfs included a high proportion of names ending in 's' and 'son' like Roberts and Jackson. Many of the oldest surnames in Britain are of Norman French origin, taken from the family estates in Normandy, for example Sinclair (from one of two places called Saint Clair) and Craker (from Crèvecoeur in Calvados).

Surname origins and meaning

Richard Coates explains: "There is widespread interest in family names and their history. Our project employs the most up-to-date evidence and techniques in order to create a more detailed and accurate resource than those currently available. We shall pay particular attention, wherever possible, to linking family names to locations.

Some names can 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 related to village greens). 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.

I have always been fascinated by names for people, places, and institutions. Surnames are part of our identity, so most people are interested in knowing about their names. My main interest is in the linguistic side, in the language of origin and the original meaning of the names, but this research is interdisciplinary, drawing also on history, family history, place-name study, geography, official statistics, and genetics."

Surname evolution and location

Richard Coates explains: "Our database will describe the origins of names, both in linguistic terms and also how they arose in the first place. By listing the spellings of the name with a date, we will be able to see how names have changed over the years and in some cases this will also give us a snapshot of social history and mobility. My own name 'Coates', for example, literally means 'cottages' in Middle English. It is also applied as a place-name and in my research I have discovered that 'Cotes' is the name of a small place in my grandfather's ancestral county of Staffordshire, so that is probably where my surname comes from.

Names still tend to cluster where they originated, so some that originated in the West Country can still be found in numbers in the region today, for example Batten, Clist, Keck, Yeo and Vagg."

Authoritative academic support

The project is supported by consultants who are the top authorities on names in those languages which have given us our surnames, such as: Old Scandinavian, Anglo-Norman French, Welsh, Cornish, Gaelic, Yiddish, and more recently other languages such as Polish, Chinese, Arabic, Yoruba and Hindi/Urdu.

FaNUK conference papers

Project members

Consultants include: Dr Peter McClure, Dr Liam Ó hAisibéil, Dr Kay Muhr and Professor Thomas Clancy.

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Page last updated 28 August 2014

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