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'Most common surnames' in Britain and Ireland revealed

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The most common surnames in the British Isles has been identified after researchers found the origins of more than 45,000 surnames.

A team, led by researchers at the University of West of England in Bristol, found the linguistic origins, history and geographical distribution of 45,602 family names in Britain and Ireland after a four-year study.

In addition, Farah, Twelvetrees and Li are also among a list of 8,000 names that have been explained for the first time.

Their findings have been published in the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, which is available from today.

The surname Twelvetrees - like that of Gloucester Rugby's Billy Twelvetrees - is among the names explained in the research Credit: David Davies/PA

The key findings include:

  • Over 90% of the 45,602 surnames in the dictionary are native to Britain and Ireland.
  • There are almost 20,000 main entries, of which 50% are locative names, like Leicester, Sutton and Green
  • About 23% are relationship names, like Dawson, Phelps and Edrich
  • About 19% are nicknames, like Fox, Longbones, Mantel and Goodfellow
  • About 8% are occupational or status names, like Tanner, Webster and Franklin
90%
of the 45,602 surnames are native to Britain and Ireland.
19%
are nicknames.
8%
are occupational or status names, like Tanner, Webster and Franklin.
Lee Johnson has one of the most common last names Credit: Simon Galloway/PA

They found the most common surnames to be:

  • Smith (more than 400,000 bearers in 1881, 500,000 today)
  • Jones (more than 300,000 in 1881; currently 400,000)
  • Williams (just over 200,000 in 1881, nearly 300,000 now)
  • Brown and Taylor (both just under 200,000 in 1881, now over 250,000)
  • Johnson (just over 100,000 in 1881, now more than 150,000)
  • Lee (just under 50,000 in 1881, now nearly 84,000)

Researchers found nearly 40,000 family names are native to Britain and Ireland, while the others stem from immigrants who settled in the 16th century to the present day, including Dutch, Jewish, Indian, Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and African.

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.

– Professor Richard Coates
But what's behind Axton and Pentelow?

Professor Richard Coates added: "Some surnames have origins that are occupational - obvious examples are Smith and Baker; less obvious ones are Beadle, Rutter, and Baxter.

"Other names can be linked to a place, for example Hill or Green, 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 Brown, Short, or Thin - though Short may in fact be an ironic 'nickname' surname for a tall person."

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