In 1605, the great antiquary William Camden published Remaines concerning Britain, a scholarly miscellany that includes the first serious attempt to explore the history of surnames. He was well aware of the pitfalls involved in such an enterprise, as ‘to find out the true original of Surnames is full of difficulty’. David McKie takes due heed of Camden’s warning in his new book, a discursive historical survey in which he analyses and celebrates the rich variety of British surnames.
His avowed concern is with the role of names in our sense of identity and with their uses and impact. But a good deal of the book is devoted to examining the ways in which surnames have arisen. Many British names derive from patronymics, occupations, nicknames and place names. Linguistically they reflect successive waves of invaders and immigrants to these shores, from the early Celtic hordes through to relatively recent arrivals. Among the latter, McKie cites the great influx of Poles during the last decade, the large numbers of Koreans to be found in New Malden and the appearance of Patel at number forty in the list of the fifty most common surnames in electoral registers.
The Conqueror and his companions have a good deal to answer for. As well as adding to the general repertoire of names, the Normans were to a large extent responsible for introducing transmissible surnames to Britain. These sprang up gradually over the Middle Ages, their initial purpose being to distinguish