“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked as she and Romeo tried to puzzle their way around the troubling problem of their warring families. Well, plenty, the most detailed investigation into surnames in the UK and Ireland has found.

A team of researchers has spent four years studying the meanings and origins of almost 50,000 surnames, from the most common to the highly obscure. Some names have been around for many centuries while other more recent arrivals are explained for the first time in the work, the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, which was published this week.

There are dozens of obvious ones linked to occupations, such as Smith (a name carried by more than half a million British and Irish people), or to place names, such as Leicester, Sutton or Green. There are also many that began life as nicknames, such as Longbones and Goodfellow.

But there are also some that could not be guessed at, such as Campbell. The surname used to be represented in Latin documents as de campo bello (of the beautiful field). The new dictionary, however, spells out that it comes from the Gaelic for crooked mouth.

The complex origins of Chinese names

Richard Coates, professor of linguistics at the University of Western England (UWE), says there was great interest in the origins of family names. (His own may stem from one of the numerous places called Coates, or from the Old English “cot”, for cottage or workman’s hut.)

“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,” he says.

About half of the 20,000 most common names are locative, meaning they come from places; a quarter are relationship names, such as Dawson; and a fifth are nicknames.

About 8 per cent are occupational, including less familiar ones such as Beadle (church official), Rutter (musician) and Baxter (baker). The nicknames are not always straightforward: the early Shorts may have earned theirs because they were tall.

Li ... is one of the commonest Chinese surnames in Britain, with more than 9,000 bearers in 2011, not counting those who spell it Lee

The research has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), led by a team at UWE in Bristol and published by Oxford University Press. In paper form, it is four hefty volumes.

On the team were historical linguists, medieval historians, lexicographers and expert advisers on Irish, Scottish, Welsh and recent immigrant names. They analysed records from published and unpublished sources dating from the 11th to the 19th century to pinpoint new and detailed explanations for names. They looked at names that could be found in just about every corner of the British Isles, and ones attached to as few as 100 people.

Each entry includes the frequencies of the name at the time of the 1881 and 2011 censuses, 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 this evidence is new, drawn from previously untapped medieval and modern sources such as tax records, church registers and census returns.

The study concludes that nearly 40,000 family names are native to Britain and Ireland, while the remainder reflect the diverse languages and cultures of immigrants who have settled since the 16th century, including French Huguenot, Dutch, Jewish, Indian, Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and African arrivals.

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About 8,000 names are explained for the first time, the researchers say, including Farah and Li or Lee. Farah, it turns out, has both an English and Muslim definition. The rare English name Farah is recorded with five bearers in the 1881 census, resident in Middlesex and northern England. It is said to be derived from the northern pronunciation of the much commoner Farrer, Middle English for ironworker or blacksmith.

By the time of the 2011 UK census there were 1,502 Farahs, almost all thought to be of Muslim origin, for whom the name is based on the Arabic for joy, happiness and delight.

Li is also fascinating. It is one of the commonest Chinese surnames in Britain, with more than 9,000 bearers in 2011, not counting those who spell it Lee. The name has at least six separate origins in a range of Chinese dialects, including the meanings plum, chestnut, black, fortunate and strict.

Another example of a recent immigrant surname, Patel, comes from a Hindu and Parsi word for a village headman.

The work corrects wrong previous explanations. Past dictionaries, for instances, have said Maude comes from the Middle English name Maud. But the researchers have concluded it is linked to the town of Mold, in north Wales.

Some are esoteric. Peter McClure, a professor and the dictionary’s chief etymologist, says, “The modern appearance of a name is not always a good guide to its origin. For example, Levison looks like a Jewish name meaning son of Levi, and sometimes it is, but in northeast England it is a colloquial development of the Scottish locative surname Livingstone.

“Edgoose (historically a south Lincolnshire surname) has nothing to do with geese but is a 16th-century pronunciation of the name Edecus, a rare pet form of Edith.”

It does not end here. AHRC has awarded UWE Bristol a further grant to continue the project so that another 15,000 surnames with just 20 current bearers or more can be included.