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18 January, 2006

What's in a surname?

A joint project by three UK universities allows one to examine the geographical distribution of one's surname within the UK, both current and historic.  The aim of the Surname Profiler is to understand patterns of population movement, social mobility, regional economic development and cultural identity, but to lay people, it's just interesting.

In the 1998 data, my surname exhibits a slight concentration ('3', on a scale of 1-6) in NW England, particularly Manchester and N. Cumbria ('4'), with lesser clusters ('2') extending across the W. Midlands and N.Wales, and in an arc around the fringes of London (the commuter belt). However, Shetland stands out with the highest possible concentration, '6'. I already knew my family name is Scandinavian, and I suppose the Shetlanders are predominently descended from Norse settlers. I vaguely remember reading that NW England was settled by Norwegians too, which might explain the slight concentration here but not in E. England, which was settled by Danes.

There are a few summary statistics, too, but I'm not entirely sure how to interpret a couple of them.

  • It seems there were 2095 instances of my surname in the 1998 data (really? That seems extraordinarily low), up from 1746 in 1881, yet in terms of proportion of the population rather than absolute number, my surname dropped from rank order 2467 in 1881 to 2779th in 1998.
  • My surname occurred 65 times per million names in 1881, and 56 per million in 1998.
  • 99.27% of instances are ethnically British.
  • My surname isn't recorded as being used as a forename in the UK (understandably).
Try it with your own name, but I'd better mention that since the site was only launched four days ago, and has been receiving media coverage, it's experiencing high volumes of traffic – you might want to wait a couple of days.
I presume the academics have mixed feelings about this. It's great that population geography has caught the public's imagination (or at least tapped into the public's self-regard), but conversely it'd be good if the academics could gain access to their own resource!

[Update 07/11/07: Following a collaborative project, the Surname Profiler has been rebranded under the National Trust's corporate identity.]

[Update 30/11/12: Which seems have been rebranded again - I think this uses the same database.]

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