Fox, Williams, Slater: how names define us

Where do you fit in? 45,000 names might seem a lot, but there were 240,000 in 1901.

A new study has revealed the origins of British surnames. Some are extremely common and some have almost disappeared. What does your name say about you — and is there a perfect name?

In England and Scotland the Smiths reign supreme — there are half a million of them. In Ireland the most common surname is Murphy. One in 19 people in Wales is a Jones. In Germany it is Müller, in France it is Martin and in Russia it is Smirnov, or Smirnova for women.

Names are strange things. They are, at once, important and irrelevant. They do not fundamentally matter, as they do not change your character. But contained within them are identity, history, genetics and, for some, strong social connotations.

Yesterday the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland was published. There are 45,602 surnames in the book, which costs £400 to purchase. They range from the most frequent — in order: Smith, Jones, Taylor, Brown and Williams — to those with under 50 holders, such as Nighy, Bonneville and Fernard. (There are over 60,000 family names in Britain; phase two of the research has already started studying rarer names.)

Some have obvious origins: Johnson is a patronymic and just means ‘son of John’. Some are simply places, like Kent or Norton, while many are occupations, like Baxter (baker) or Fletcher (arrow-maker).

But some have origins that could not be guessed. It used to be thought that Campbell came from the Latin ‘de campo bello’ (of the beautiful field). But the recent research has concluded that it comes from the Gaelic for crooked mouth. Vardy comes from ‘faire dai’, meaning ‘(have a) fair day, presumably for someone cheerful.

Many are loaded with connotations, and this is where things get really interesting. A study by the London School of Economics found that historically ‘elite’ surnames like Darcy, Baskerville and Percy are still over-represented at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and in top professions like law and medicine. Double-barrelled names are also seen as posh, as families adopted them in order to preserve surnames which might have become extinct.

While most people are relatively content with their names, there is an element of the ‘grass is greener’ syndrome: people with common names sometimes yearn for a more unique identity, while those with unusual names may ache for the comforting plainness of being called something ordinary. Which is better?


Unusual surnames are much better, say some. There are two reasons for this: first, they help you stand out from other people, making you easier to remember for people you meet; second, they frequently have fascinating origins that say a lot about your own family background.

But there are great advantages which accompany normal names. There are no pre-conceptions about someone called Lucy Johnson, and Jack Smith never has to go through the tedium of spelling out a long double-barrelled name down the telephone. Normality is underrated.

You Decide

  1. Which would you rather have: a common name or an unusual name?
  2. Do you like your own name?


  1. Rank your classmates in order of how common you think each of their names are.
  2. Research your own surname, or the unusual surname of someone you know. Report its history back to your class.

Some People Say...

“Everyone should choose their own surname.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Have names changed much over the years?
First names change more than surnames, as they are chosen, rather than inherited. But some surnames have seen a huge increase in appearance. Many of these are foreign names. They include Patel, the most common name in India, and Li, the most common in China. Meanwhile some, such as Cohen, Ashworth and Clegg, have seen a dramatic fall in usage over the last century.
Can I change my name if I don’t like it?
Technically you do not ‘change your name’; you just adopt a new one. The best way to do this — accepted for official documents — is to make a ‘deed poll’, which is a legal document effected to express an intention binding to, in this case, a single person. If you are under 18 you cannot change your name without your parents’ consent.

Word Watch

Welsh names are often relationship names — i.e. Jones means ‘son of John’. Davies, Roberts, Evans, Hughes, Williams and Thomas are all common Welsh surnames.
Smirnov, or Smirnova for women
All Slavic languages have masculine and feminine surnames. So Vladimir Putin’s mother was called Maria Putina, and Maria Sharapova’s father is called Yuri Sharapov.
Change your character
They usually don’t, but there is a hypothesis called ‘nominative determinism’ which says, for example, that people tend to gravitate towards jobs that fit their name. There are numerous amusing examples of this, such as a former British judge called Igor Judge and a White House spokesman called Larry Speakes.
Under 50 holders
A study conducted by Ancestry UK found that 200,000 surnames had disappeared since 1901. These include Chips, Hatman, Temples, Nithercott and Southwark.
A name derived from your father.
Darcy, Baskerville and Percy
All are names of French origin, which came over to Britain with the Norman invasion. The supportes and officers of the new Norman king instantly became the new privileged elite.

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