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

Putting the ‘rogue’ in ‘prorogue’

Protesters standing by The Cenotaph in Bristol, protesting the prorogation of Parliament.
Protester holding a sign saying "Liar Johnson put the 'ROGUE' in 'PRO-ROGUE' #StopTheCoup" at a protest by The Cenotaph in Bristol City Centre
Protester holding a sign at “Stop the Coup” protest next to The Cenotaph, Bristol City Centre.
Photo: Jack Fifield.

The word ‘prorogue’ has been enjoying its time in the spotlight this week, and many, not least angry protesters, have expertly deduced that the word ‘prorogue’ looks like the words ‘pro rogue’. This begs the question: are these words actually related?

To start my investigation, I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

As an historical dictionary, the OED doesn’t prioritize modern meanings over historical meanings; this can be seen by the fact that the modern UK sense isn’t stated until last in the OED’s entry “b. intransitive. Of a legislative assembly, etc.: to discontinue sittings for a period of time or until the next session.”

As many angry demonstrators holding signs such as “Boris Johnson is a pro rogue” or “Liar Johnson put the ‘ROGUE’ in ‘PRO-ROGUE’” (pictured) over the last few weeks have pointed out, at first glance, the word ‘prorogue’ looks and sounds like a combination of the prefix “pro-” (before something) and the adjective ‘rogue’ (unpredictable, dishonest, etc.).

The “pro” in “prorogue” is not a shortening of “professional”, with the OED confirming that, much more simply, in this case, it is the prefix discussed above, in the sense of “Forward, onward, in a course or in time”; this leads us to “rogue”, surely this is just the word “rogue”?

Going back to Latin via the route of Anglo-Norman and Middle French, we get to rogāre, to ask, according the OED, and we are directed to “see rogation n.”, with multiple senses including the acts of begging and of making a formal request.

Turning to the origin of the word ‘rogue’, the OED tells us that the earliest recorded sense is “An idle vagrant, a vagabond; one of a group or class of such people. Now archaic or historical.”, but admits that the origin is unknown, suggesting that it may be related to “roger n.”, an obsolete word for a beggar pretending to be from Oxford or Cambridge, with the OED telling us that some have suggested that this was actually pronounced like the word “rogue” instead of the name “roger”, but that there is no supporting evidence for any of this, or that the words are even related, and that “an etymological connection with the family of classical Latin rogāre (see rogation n.) is unlikely.”, bringing us full circle.

So, it would seem that, whilst the OED is of the opinion that a connection between ‘prorogue’ and ‘rogue’ is unlikely, there are some similar senses for both words relating to the acts of begging or asking, meaning that there could be some connection along the line. For now, this case remains unsolved.

Language myths: Bilingualism rots the brain


If you’ve got children, you’ll probably have been told that raising them bilingual will be a useful advantage, with the potential of facilitating many opportunities throughout life that monolinguals don’t have access to. However, this has not always been the accepted point of view. Throughout history, bilingualism has been historically seen as a handicap by the west, often akin to a mental handicap; many researchers claimed that being bilingual slowed the minds of children and that they would never be able to achieve the same level of intelligence as their monolingual counterparts (Kaplan, 2016). For the purposes of this report, ‘bilingualism’ and ‘multilingualism’ will both mean ‘a person who speaks several languages’, rather than the more restrictive ‘a person who speaks two languages’. This report seeks to debunk the myth that bilingualism has negative effects on intelligence levels in speakers.

A paradigm shift

So, why the shift in attitudes? How could bilingualism go from universal ridicule, with warnings of childhood retardation and split personalities, to something regarded as so important that UNESCO has said that bilingualism should be encouraged “at all levels of education” (UNESCO, 02 November 2001). The answer may lie in the definition of intellectualism. What may be considered an example of intelligence in one context, may be considered quite the opposite in a different context; as earlier studies on bilingualism’s effects on intelligence failed to take this in to account, they may have falsely attributed a lack of intelligence to bilingualism that may have been caused due to bias or a failing of the study itself (Hakuta and Suben, 1985).

It was not until the mid-twentieth century that this shift in attitudes towards the intelligence of bilinguals started to take place; a study by Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert compared French-English bilinguals in Canada with monolinguals with a multitude of tests, and showed that the bilinguals scored higher on IQ tests than their monolingual counterparts (Grosjean, 2012). So, why the change? You’d be hard-pressed to find many reasonable academics or teachers that would claim that bilingualism is anything but an advantage. The change is due to the way the studies were realised, with failings to control for variables such as socioeconomic factors, including class (Kaplan, 2016). These variables were controlled in Peal and Lambert’s study (Kaplan, 2016).

Size of the lexicon

One interpretation of the definition of ‘intelligence’ within bilingual children is the rate of language acquisition; an assumption could be made that a more limited vocabulary is a symptom of low intelligence. A common thought is that bilinguals acquire language at a lower rate than monolinguals (Grosjean, 2012). However, as bilingual children begin the important language-acquisition-events, such as the ‘babbling’ process and first word process, amongst others, at the same time as their monolingual counterparts (Grosjean, 2012), this is clearly a misconception. This would seem in stark contrast to the notion of a lowered intelligence level.

This is not to say, however, that this is considered a universal truth amongst the academic community. Some studies have concluded that bilinguals control a smaller vocabulary in each respective language than monolinguals have in one language (Bialystok, 2009), but, whether it is appropriate to consider a more limited vocabulary as lower intelligence could be considered a matter of opinion. Despite this, most recent academic research would support the claim that bilingualism does not impede intelligence (Kaplan, 2016).

Bilingualism and its positive cognitive effects

It is undeniable that language and intelligence are closely linked. As language-speakers grow older, they may find that their cognitive functions begin to slow, word recollection starts to falter, and faster speech becomes increasingly unintelligible (Grosjean, 2012). However, according to recent studies, elderly bilingual speakers show a later onset of cognitive slowing associated with ageing, with multilingual speakers having the highest cognitive ability measured when compared against a group of monolingual speakers (Kavé et al., 2008). This would provide further evidence to put into doubt the findings of studies of the early twentieth century that stated that bilinguals have lower cognitive ability when compared with their monolingual counterparts.


In conclusion, from combining the failures by academics to implement proper control methods within their studies to control for socioeconomic and other external factors (Kaplan, 2016), with the fact that many American studies were influenced by heavy nationalistic and racial biases within researchers (Hakuta and Suben, 1985), and the fact that modern research shows evidence contrary to earlier studies – that bilinguals actually have a higher cognitive ability than monolinguals (Kavé et al., 2008), I find the notion that bilingualism can impede cognitive development to be largely fallacious, based mostly on failings and biases of researchers at the time.


Bialystok, E. (2009) Bilingualism: The good, the bad, and the indifferent. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. 12 (1), pp.3.

Grosjean, F. (2012) Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Hakuta, K. and Suben, J. (1985) Bilingualism and Cognitive Development. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics. 6 (March 1985), pp.35.

Kaplan, A. (2016) Women talk more than men: And Other Myths about Language Explained. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kavé, G., Eyal, N., Shorek, A. and Cohen-Mansfield, J. (2008) Multilingualism and cognitive state in the oldest old. Psychology and Aging. 23 (1), pp.70.

UNESCO (02 November 2001) UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. Available from: [Accessed 04 November 2017].

Also published here: