Family names dictionary free for lockdown  —  an interview with the project’s principal investigator

The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names of Britain and Ireland, with research in part by UWE’s Professor Emeritus Richard Coates, is free for members of the public until the end of May 21, meaning you and your family can fill lockdown boredom by finding out the actual history of your shared name.

For example, my surname is a “locative name from various places named with Old English fīf ‘five’ + hīde ‘hides’, a hide being an Anglo-Saxon measurement of land area such as Fyfield (Hants, Gloucs, Berks, Wilts, Essex), Fifield near Stow on the Wold (Oxon), Fifield near Wallingford (Oxon), Fifield (Wilts), Fifield Bavant (Wilts), Fifehead Magdalen (Dorset), Fifehead Neville (Dorset), Fifehead Saint Quintin (Dorset), Fivehead (Somerset), and Fitzhead (Somerset).

The public can access the database of 45,000 surnames for free until the end of Thursday.

Looking into your family name is a perfect lockdown activity — why not (like the author of this article) make a Zoom pub quiz out of your friends’ surnames with what you find? You might be surprised with what comes up!

UWE’s own Richard Coates, professor emeritus of onomastics, the study or science of the history and origin of proper names, was the project’s principal investigator and spoke to this article’s author on a video call.

Why did you decide to compile this dictionary?

RC: The previous dictionary of surnames, by Percy Reaney, was published back in the 1960s, and things move on in fifty years — techniques are better developed, we know more about how to extract information about modern names using computational methods, and so forth. My co-worker, Patrick Hanks, conceived the idea of doing a new dictionary, the main novelty of which would be to link up medieval evidence and modern evidence to get continuity. One of the main problems of Reaney’s dictionary was that it is in fact a dictionary of medieval surnames; where he connects with modern surnames, it’s sometimes very unreliable. We wanted to bridge that gap, cover a very large number more surnames than he did, we’ve got double. We think we’ve covered all surnames that had more than twenty bearers in 1881 and more than a hundred bearers in 2001.

What’s your opinion of popular websites that claim to offer hidden meanings of names?

RC: Well, shall I say complete rubbish, or would you like something stronger?! Nothing else to say, it’s unscientific and we’ve done a scientific dictionary. If anybody believes in lucky numbers in the first place, then I probably haven’t got a great deal to talk to them about — from a scientific perspective. There are all kinds of family reasons why one might vary that sort of rule, I guess!

Why do you think people are so interested in family names and their origins?

RC: People are interested in names in general, particularly in place names, they’re interested in an etymological [the study of the history of linguistic forms, such as words] kind of way. People just don’t seem to think so frequently about etymologies of surnames. It’s not altogether surprising if I go to give a talk somewhere and discover someone whose surname is Butcher who’s never thought that the connection might have something to do with being a butcher; it’s just not a question that arises, but once you put the seed in their mind, they tend to be interested, and begin to ask themselves: do surnames have a historical meaning? And my answer is, well yes, they do — or rather they did when they were coined.

What’s next?

RC: Etymologically, there is still work to do, which is why we’ve already spent quite a long time preparing a second edition. There will be a second edition in due course, because we’ve got work that can be absorbed into it.

We’re busy making corrections to the database behind the first edition the whole time. We’re getting a lot of material from the general public that is actually very helpful, family historians write in and say, after the first niggling comment, like ‘we didn’t find our name in our dictionary’ or ‘the explanation in your dictionary is wrong’, they very often then provide some very helpful information which will help us update it.

We’re in dialogue with the public, and the dialogue is very helpful and will lead to an improved product in due course.

What do you think of Oxford making the dictionary available free to the public this week?

RC: I’m very much in favour of giving the public as much information as it needs, I’m instinctively anti-paywall and anything like that!

Featured photo by Steve Buissinne / Pixabay