So, where does your name come from?

The creation of the largest database of its kind aims to unlock the derivation of 150,000 names

What does my surname mean and where does it come from? It is the question that baffles many amateur genealogists.

The meanings of all 150,000 surnames in use across the country look set to be revealed as part of the largest-ever database of family names in the UK.

The database will include very common names such as Miller or Williams, but will also cast light on the stories behind those unusual surnames which have fewer than 100 bearers.

The new £834,350 research project, led by the University of the West of England (UWE), plans to reveal the stories behind our surnames and make them publicly available to all home genealogists, family historians, and anyone interested in learning more about their family name.

The study will not focus exclusively on names of English and Scots origin, but will also include names of Norman French, Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish origin, as well as Huguenot, Jewish and later immigrant names.

Using published and unpublished resources, dating from as far back as the 11th century, a team of researchers will collect information about individual names, such as when and where they were recorded and how they have been spelt. Many variations in surnames resulted from misspellings or mishearings of names at a time when few people were literate.

The database will also attempt to shed light on the social origins of names. For example, the earliest surnames of the land-holding classes were more likely to be descriptions or names of places than those of other classes. Meanwhile, small tenants and serfs were likely to have a name ending in "-s" or "-son", such as Roberts or Jackson, to link them to an ancestor.

"Our project will use the most up-to-date techniques and evidence available to create a more detailed and accurate resource than those currently available," said Professor Richard Coates of UWE's Bristol Centre for Linguistics. "For example, new statistical methods for linking family names to locations will enable us to provide more accurate and detailed origins for names.

"Names can have origins that are occupational – obvious examples are Smith and Baker. Or names can be linked to a place, for example the names Hill or Green [which related to village greens]. Surnames which are 'patronymic' are those which enshrine the father's name – such as Jackson or Jenkinson. There are also names descriptive of the original bearer, such as Brown, Short or Thin."

This new knowledge should be more reliable and up to date than that found in the books on surnames currently available.

Professor Coates added: "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.

"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, Yeo and Vagg."

The project will begin in April 2010 and will last four years. It is planned to have the database available online for public consultation from 2014.

Professor Coates added: "I have always been fascinated by names for people, places and institutions. Surnames are part of our identity. 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, official statistics and genetics."

On the database

Nicknames

Some surnames refer to general physical appearance.

Brown, from the Old High German "brun", referring to the colour of hair, complexion or clothing. Variations: Broun, Broune.

Little, from the Old English "lytel", either to denote a small man, or to distinguish the younger of two people with the same name. Variations: Littell, Lytle, Lyttle, Littler.

Tolstoy, from Russian and Jewish, a nickname for a plump man, from Russian "tolstoi", a variant of "tolstoy" (fat).

Many surnames derived from the names of animals and birds were originally nicknames, referring to appearance or character, from the attributes traditionally assigned to animals. The nickname Fox would thus be given to a cunning person; Lamb to a gentle and inoffensive one.

Ancestral Names

The oldest and most common type of surname is derived from an ancestor's given name – most usually a patronymic, ie from a person's father's, given name.

Jones, meaning son of John. Variations include: Johnson, Johnston, Johnstone, John, Johns, Joinson, Joynson, Ions.

Williams, meaning son of William. This comes from an Old French given name composed of the Germanic elements "wil" (desire) and "helm" (protection). Introduced to England at the time of the Norman conquest. In honour of William the Conqueror, William became the most popular given name in England. Variations: Williamson, Willems, Wiliems, Fitzwilliam.

There are also surnames derived from shortened or familiar forms of given names. This was particularly common in the Middle Ages, hence the frequency of such common English surnames as Hobson and Dobson, based on popular forms of the baptismal name Robert.

Place Names

Surnames derived from place names can either be topographic – referring to someone who lived near a physical feature – or derived from pre-existing names of towns, villages or other habitations.

Sykes, English, a name for someone who lived by a marshy stream or damp gully, from Middle English "syke".

Stokes, English, from the Old English "stoc", meaning an outlying hamlet or dependent settlement of a larger town. Variations: Stoke, Stoak, Stoaks, Stooks, Stookes, Stoker. Or someone from any place called Stoke.

Preston, from Old English "preost" (priest) and "tun" (settlement). The original meaning may have been "village with a priest" or "village held by the church". Or someone from any place called Preston.

Other surnames denoted origin in a particular region or country. These tended to be used when someone migrated a long distance.

Dench, from the Middle English "dench" or "densch", meaning someone from Denmark.

Walsh, English: name for a Celt, from Middle English "walsche", meaning Celtic or foreign.

Fleming English ethnic name for someone from Flanders.

Occupational Names

Referring directly to the trade or occupation followed by the first bearer.

Smith, a name for a blacksmith, probably from Old English "smitan", meaning to strike or hammer.

Webb, a name for a weaver, from Old English "webba". This word gave rise to the surname, but was already obsolete as an agent noun, hence the forms Webber and Webster.

Leadbetter, a name for a worker in lead, from Middle English "ledbetere", from Old English "lead" plus "beatan", to beat.

Another group describes an action and object involved in a trade, sometimes in a humorous way (eg Catchpole for bailiff, Knatchbull for slaughterer and butcher).

Some surnames denoted high rank or descent from high rank. Names such as Abbott and Squire probably have this origin.

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