A post at Linguism links to a useful-looking site that “tracks the distribution of family names in Great Britain in 1881 and 1998”:

This gives the absolute frequency of a name, and also its relative frequency (occurrences per million of the population) and ranking (where its frequency stands in relation to all other family names). There is also a map which shows the areas where the name appears most frequently.

Graham uses it to show that Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges (whose books on name origins are a pillar of my reference shelf) are mistaken about the origin of the surname Pointon.
Update (November 2012): The site linked above is dead, but here is a site providing similar information.


  1. John Emerson says

    This site has been up for awhile, and has taught me that apparently none of my ancestors was Welsh, regardless of the family tradition. (Hiams/Himes, Church, Emerson, Dumbleton).
    There are oddly many Emersons in the Outer Hebrides, however.

  2. That site is fascinating! It shows that my family are right in insisting that the t in Johnston is very important, as it is a Scottish name rather than English.
    I think the small populations in the Scottish islands skews some of their results.

  3. Richard Hershberger says

    I have in years past been involved in an odd corner of onomastic research. It has been some years, but my recollection is that Hanks & Hodges was not well thought of. For English surnames, the standard was R.H. Reaney and R.W. Wilson’s Dictionary of English Surnames. For given names, E.G. Withycombe’s Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names is still the gold standard. As I recall, Hanks and Hodges cast a wider net than just English, but not particularly well. For other languages, you are generally better off with more specialized works, usually in those languages.

  4. Ah, thanks for the tip!

  5. David Waugh says

    To Helga: Johnston is indeed a Scottish surname, as opposed to Johnson which is English. Have you read Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides? Boswell relates that Samuel Johnson was constantly being irritated by Scottish people calling him “Dr Johnston”. On one occasion he exclaimed “My name sir, is Johnson, and I am an Englishman.” The name Johnson must have seemed anomolous to 18th c. Scots.

  6. There is a Dutch equivalent here:
    On the results page, you get (if available) historical/bibliographical references on the name, and the 1947 distribution by province, with a map version available (scroll down).
    There is also a Dutch given names resource, but without an English site version:

  7. Interesting site, but unfortunately it only works if there are more than 100 persons of the name on the 1998 electoral register. Which means that my wife’s maiden name can’t be traced on this site, because its spelling is rare. Ah well, they do say it is going to be improved – and anyway, I know where she is 🙂

  8. John Emerson says

    And my Dutch family name is a very rare one (Hospers). The site lists mostly my Iowa ancestors.

  9. marie-lucie says

    Well, my own family name would be unlikely to be in the site mentioned, but in looking it up lately on Google I found not only references to myself and a few members of my extended family, but also a couple of American references, including one of the given names of a baby who only lived for a few months in mid-19th century Tennessee: the name would probably have come from his mother’s side. My father has traced the origin of the name to a small mountain village in France near the Italian border, where the last attested bearers of the name there died in the mid-19th century, while at least one of their male members left the village and produced heirs who ended up in Paris several generations ago. It would not be too surprising to learn that at least one of the men of that family had earlier migrated to America and was lost track of. Of course, it could also be a coincidence, but I would be most interested in trying to find out more. Can anyone advise me about how to proceed?

  10. John Emerson says

    The Mormon Church, oddly enough, is one of the best resources for genealogy. They have an odd practice of retroactively baptizing ancestors, which you can only do if you know something about them.
    There are a number of for-pay internet genaology sites, for example I’ve never used one of them; I believe that they’re honest, but probably overpriced.
    I guess this is the right place to state that my Pilgrim ancestor Michael Emerson (eight-times-great grandfather) was apparently a bad element. He was convicted of child abuse and was involved in several disputes, and his poor daughter Elizabeth was hanged for infanticide. People were instructed not to go to his “wicked house”. But my family is an old one, albeit wicked. Il m’est bien évident que j’ai toujours été race inférieure.

  11. marie-lucie says

    John, thank you for the tip. The Mormon Church indeed! I have met a Mormon lady and will ask her.
    p.s. you write a delightfully old-fashioned sentence at the end – just add de before race. Not that I would agree with the sentiment: even in the Bible, curses visited on descendants only go as far as the seventh generation.

  12. John Emerson says

    I thought “de” two, but it’s a quotation from Rimbaud.

  13. John Emerson says


  14. You can read it in context here.

  15. marie-lucie says

    OK, LH, I looked it up, and the text is indeed missing de but further down there is this:
    sur mon masque, on me jugera d’une race forte
    which makes me think that the earlier omission is an error.
    John, is this site the place where you got the quotation? I noticed that they are using a slightly reformed orthography (eg dégoutent where I would write dégoûtent, unless this is another error) and someone might have just forgotten the de in retyping the text. If not, then it must be another archaism of Rimbaud’s, like il m’est bien évident ….

  16. John Emerson says

    I got it first from the Penguin bilingual edition but then checked it against the Arlea Oeuvre-vie.
    Rimbaud despite his rebellion, decadence, and modernism was a very bookish guy during his time as a poet. I didn’t recognize that as archaism but if it is, I’m not surprised.

  17. “The seventh generation” in Biblical/Jewish contexts means “practically forever” anyhow; “the tenth generation” does mean forever.

    This database compiled by UCL is utterly useless when it comes to names of Manx origin. This set of names and their development is well studied and recorded, a process assisted by the fact that the complete manorial record – property holding, rents paid – exists for the first decade of the sixteenth century.
    In the current form most but not all of these names begin with the final sound of the Celtic “mac” = son of. Modern spelling may render this with K, C or Qu, the “ma” already falling into disuse 500 years ago!
    Hardly surprisingly, by the nineteenth century these surnames were well represented on the UK mainland, especially NW England, and elsewhere on the planet but the academics at UCL prefer to believe that the world ends at Formby Point, to misdescribe and misinterpret according to a naming system less ancient than the one they are messing with!
    Yes, of course I have pointed this out to them, politely in the first instance, but I have long since given up.

  19. Thanks for the warning, maureen!

  20. Martyn Cornell says

    Hanks and Hodges are completely up the spout on the origin of my own surname, which almost certainly comes from a lost Essex field name meaning the halh of the cranes. Interestingly the National Trust names site you link to shows that the place with the highest proportion of Cornells even in 1998 was Saffron Walden, Essex, which is where my GGGG-grandfather was born in the 18th century (and from where, I believe, the ancestors of Ezra Cornell came from).

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