The most common surnames in Britain and Ireland revealed

Louis Dor
Thursday 17 November 2016 15:45
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Picture:(Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

A new study has found the origins of more than 45,000 surnames in the British Isles.

The four-year project researching the history and diaspora of family names, by a team of researchers led by the University of the West of England, also explained the meaning of 8,000 surnames for the first time.

The research also found that 80 per cent of the most common surnames were "native" to the UK and Ireland.

Among the most popular were:

  • Smith (400,000 in the 1881 census, 500,000 today)
  • Jones (300,000 in 1881, 400,000 now.
  • Williams (200,000 in 1881, 300,000 now)
  • Brown (200,000 in 1881, more than 250,000 now)
  • Taylor (200,000 in 1881, more than 250,000 now)
  • Johnson (more than 100,000 in 1881, more than 150,000 now)
  • Lee (more than 50,000 in 1881, nearly 84,000 now)

Names like 'Hislop' were finally explained properly. Rather than originating from an unidentified place in northern England, as was previously thought, 'Hislop' is a locative surname of Scottish origin. It comes from a minor place called Hislop in Roxburghshire, on the banks of Hazelhope Burn, which both derive from Middle English 'hazel' and 'hop' meaning a deep enclosed valley.

Professor Richard Coates, said:

There is widespread interest in family names and their history. Our research uses the most up-to-date evidence and techniques in order to create a more detailed and accurate resource than those currently available. We have paid particular attention, wherever possible, to linking family names to locations.

Some surnames have origins that are occupational – obvious examples are Smith and Baker; less obvious ones are BeadleRutter, and Baxter. Other names can be linked to a place, for example Hill orGreen (which relates 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 BrownShort, or Thin – though Short may in fact be an ironic 'nickname' surname for a tall person.

More: A map of the world according to where your surname is most common

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