Book review: What's in a Surname?, by David McKie

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 11:21am

What's in a Surname? A Journey from Abercrombie to Zwicker
by David McKie
Random House
3 stars

Sam Leith

What's in a Surname? is in part a social history of surnames in general, in part a digressive meditation on their meanings (in local politics, in social hierarchy, in fiction), and in part a history of the people who have been interested in them - beginning with William Camden, the 16th-century English researcher "whose findings on surnames would not be greatly enhanced for centuries afterwards".

It's to the Normans that the British owe heritable surnames. It is to, first, curious amateurs such as Camden and, latterly, academic professionals in linguistics, genetics and anthropology that we owe such understanding of their connections and origins.

It's a book of great zest and interest, although it does go about things in a slightly odd way. In an effort to give it a framing conceit, author David McKie has paid special attention to a handful of towns called Broughton that - because they're scattered reasonably far apart - are a way into talking about the geographical distribution of surnames, and how it changed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

But in a book whose method and pleasures are anything but systematic, the whole Broughton thing looks like a gesture at a structure that was never quite going to hold the material.

The follow-your-nose quality of the book has advantages and disadvantages.

Towards the end, McKie repeats himself a tiny bit, and the odd chapter feels padded - a couple of pages of reasonably well-known literary pseudonyms here; a couple of pages of name-changing fugitives from justice there.

But there are wonderful eruptions of bare lists of strange or silly names, beguiling anecdotes, and interesting titbits. Did you know the name "Shaw" is an Anglicisation of "Macghillesheathanaich"? Did you know why so many people in Wales are called Jones? (Surnames arrived late there). Or that Ffoulkeses, far from being posh, get their lower-case double-f from an illiteracy: "ff", on an old document somewhere, was used to signify a capital F and was incorporated into the lineage by someone who didn't understand the convention?

McKie has a whimsical cast of mind and a fine sense of humour. For example, he describes one of the many amateur surname historians of the 19th century as "classically patriarchal and flaunting the kind of beard you could hide an owl in".

McKie notes that "had the Queen been destined for a tennis career rather than for the throne, she might have appeared at Wimbledon as Mrs Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg".

Guardian News & Media