What’s in a name? Lots, we know, but for the first time, a four-year research project has produced details about 45,600 most common family names in Britain and Ireland – and with more than 100,000 mentions, Patel is among them.
Details of the project led by academics at the University of the West of England, Bristol, were revealed on Thursday, coinciding with the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland.
Nearly 40,000 family names are native to Britain and Ireland, while the remainder reflect the diverse languages and cultures of immigrants that have settled from the 16th century to the present day, including French Huguenot, Dutch, Jewish, Indian, Muslim (Arabic), Korean, Japanese, Chinese and African.
The research team - including historical linguists, medieval historians, lexicographers and expert advisers on Irish, Scottish, Welsh and recent immigrant names - analysed records from published and unpublished sources dating from the 11th to the 19th century.
Each entry includes the frequencies of the name for the present day and 1881, its main location in Britain and Ireland, its language or culture of origin and, wherever possible, an explanation supported by historical evidence for the name.
Much of the evidence is new, drawn from previously untapped medieval and modern sources such as tax records, church registers and census returns, researchers said.
Lead researcher 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.”
An example of a recent immigrant surname is Patel, which has not been explained before in any dictionary covering the surnames of Britain and Ireland. It is one of the most common Indian surnames in Britain, with more than 100,000 bearers in 2011.
Another immigrant surname is Li, often written Lee. This is one of the commonest Chinese surnames in Britain, with more than 9,000 bearers in 2011, not counting those who spell it Lee, which will increase the number considerably.
Patrick Hanks, one of the editors of the dictionary, said: “It's only with computer technology for sorting and comparing hundreds of millions of digitised records that enough electronic data is available and organisable so as to enable researchers to draw conclusions with confidence about the origin and history of each surname, taking account of factors such as its geographical distribution and local dialect.”
5 most common surnames of Indian origin in Britain and Ireland (2011 census)
Patel (101,463 bearers) – This is one of the commonest Indian surnames in Britain. It is a status name from a Hindi and Parsi word for a village headman.
Singh (56,446 bearers) – from Sanskrit ‘simha’ or lion, hence “hero” or “eminent person”. It was originally a Hindu Kshatriya, but is now adopted by many different communities.
Kaur (35,595 bearers) – from a term used by Hindu and Sikh women as the final element in a first surname or surname. It is therefore not a true surname, but a reduced form of a different name. The element derives from Sanskrit ‘kumārī’ for girl or daughter.
Shah (31,312 bearers) – this name has two possible etymological origins. It can be from the Persian royal title ‘Shāh’ for king or emperor, or it derives from the Gujarati ‘sah’ for merchant.
Miah (19,327 bearers) – this name derives from a Muslim title of respect, from Urdu ‘mian’ for sir, a derivative of Persian ‘miyān’, used to address an older man.