Family Names of the United Kingdom (FaNUK)

A major Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded research project led by UWE has completed its first funding period, 2010-2014. The research team has achieved a detailed investigation of the origins, history, and geographical distribution of the 45,000 most frequent surnames in Britain and Ireland with 100 current bearers or more in the UK.

The resulting database – the most extensive of its kind on UK surnames – has now been submitted to Oxford University Press for print and online publication as the Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (FaNBI). But more is to come.

In January 2014, AHRC awarded UWE a further grant to continue the research for another three years. This means that all surnames with twenty bearers or more in the UK in either 1881 or 2011 can now be included. This second phase allows for research into rarer surnames, including many borne by migrants to the UK since 1881. This second project is now well underway.

Professor Richard Coates at the Bristol Centre for Linguistics at UWE Bristol directs the project, with eminent lexicographer and visiting Professor Patrick Hanks leading the research team. 

The research is being carried out with the technical collaboration of members 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.

Project scope

The entire FaNUK output will be of enormous interest to genealogists, family historians, social historians, historical linguists, and indeed anyone interested in learning more about family names.

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 attention has been given to studying recent immigrant names (i.e. those appearing after 1881) including Indian, Chinese and a range of Muslim names, with the cooperation of overseas consultants.

From published and unpublished resources dating from the 11th century onwards, a team of researchers with expertise in historical linguistics and onomastics (name studies) extracts information about individual names such as when and where they were recorded and how they have been spelt. This information is used to give new and detailed explanations of those names, adding knowledge which is far more reliable and up to date than that found in previously published books on surnames.

Public access

The main product of the research – the FaNUK database - will be made available as a dictionary, scheduled by Oxford University Press for publication in late 2016. This Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (FaNBI) will be published both in book form and online; it will be accessible via educational institutions and public libraries, as well as by private subscription.

Each entry will include: the meaning(s) of the surname, its linguistic origin, geographical origin, number of bearers and geographical distribution in 1881, and the current number of bearers according to the most recent (2011) UK census.

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 linguistic and computational techniques applied to vast amounts of data in order to create a more detailed and accurate resource than those previously available. We pay particular attention, wherever possible, to linking family names to locations. And on the second FaNUK project we have the resources to explain the origins of those place names as well.

“Some surnames 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 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.

“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 potentially genetics."

Surname evolution and location

According to Richard Coates: "Our database describes the origins of names, both in linguistic terms and also regarding the manner in which they arose in the first place. By listing the spellings of the name with a date, we can see how names have changed over the years and in some cases this also gives 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.

Project members

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

Contact us at familynames@uwe.ac.uk

View FaNUK talks, conference papers and publications

Page last updated 20 February 2015

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