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What's in a name? Find out at UWE

By This is Bristol  |  Posted: December 16, 2009

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Researchers in Bristol have been given more than £800,000 to create a database of UK family surnames.

The four-year project, being led by the University of the West of England, will contain the meanings and origins of 150,000 UK surnames.

It will be made publicly available and is likely to be of enormous interest to home genealogists, family historians, and anyone interested in learning about their family name.

The research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council with a grant worth £834,350. The project will be carried out with the collaboration of the Faculty of Informatics at Masaryk University, Brno, in the Czech Republic.

The research will be carried out by Professor Richard Coates at the Bristol Centre for Linguistics at UWE with lead researcher Dr Patrick Hanks, an eminent lexicographer who is a visiting professor at UWE.

This is the largest project in scale and scope ever undertaken in the UK on family names. There are about 150,000 surnames in Britain – including very common ones such as Miller or Williams – but there are also numbers of surnames with a hundred bearers or fewer.

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Using published and unpublished resources, dating from as far back as the 11th century, researchers will collect information about names such as when and where they were recorded and how they are spelt.

Richard Coates said: "There is widespread interest in family names and their history. 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. For example, new statistical methods for linking names to locations will enable us to provide more accurate and detailed origins for names.

"Some 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. Surnames which are 'patronymic' are those which enshrine the father's name – such as Jackson, or Jenkinson. There are also names when the origin describes the bearer such as Brown, Short or Thin.

"I have always been fascinated by names for people, places and institutions. Surnames are part of our identity, so most people are interested in knowing about names.

"My name 'Coates', for example, literally means 'cottages' in Middle English. It is also applied as a place name and in my research I have discovered that 'Cotes' is the name of a place in my grandfather's county of Staffordshire, so that's probably where my surname comes from.

"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."

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