What's in a Surname? A Journey from Abercrombie to Zwicker was published Thursday and reviewed yesterday in theguardian Books, an online daily review and commentary about books and reading to which I go every morning even before I read my email and check in on Facebook. In his theguardian discussion of the book, Sam Leith tells us some of the more charming name lore:
'[D]id you know that 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? Likewise, all those people who claim to be able to trace their names back to the conquest are in error: "the eminent surname expert David Hey says only people called Malet, Mallet or Mallett have an undisputed right to make such a claim"'.
I assuredly did not know that about the name Shaw and I had no idea the Darcys were of more recent origin than they claimed. I did know that the most popular name in England is Smith. Scotland too. And that you don't pronounce Featherstonhaugh the way it looks.
David McKie's investigation of English, Scottish, and Welsh family names begins with a visit to the graveyard. (I can only tell you about the beginning of the book because I've only read the first chapter.) The graveyard, or rather graveyards - he investigates six of them in towns of the same name, Broughton - yield different clusters of names depending where in England it's located - Furness or Hampshire or wherever. Hattats and Dowses in one place, Gilpins, Sawreys, and Cooksons in another.
As I say, I've read only the beginning of the book but so far it's filled with that sort of useless information that can be absolutely captivating. I have a few books about names (The Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their Origins is one of the more informative) but What's in a Surname? is different. There are the usual lists. In the appendices McKie tells us the 50 most popular names in England and such like. But the appeal of McKie's approach is his wandering chapters with titles like "Translocations - Names on the March," and "Deprivations - Surnames Lost, Stolen, Strayed - or Denied."
The book is apparently not to be published in paper in the US until mid-September, but it's available on the Kindle right now, which is how I happened to be reading a book on the day it was published.
(And I have it on the best authority that Featherstonhaugh is pronounced Fanshaw.)