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The British surnames facing extinction

Alex Riches

Old British surnames are hitting extinction, but why is this such a big deal?

The British surnames facing extinction

Going, going, gone... The traditional British surname is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Photo: David Flam (Flickr)

WHAT makes a traditional British surname? History? Antiquity? How about exclusivity? It seems the traditional British surname is old and is on its way to extinction. Since 1901, more than 200,000 surnames have gone extinct and more are set to follow.

Using the term ‘extinct’ for something like a name seems pretty unusual. That word is usually reserved for animals and plants. But it’s a more accurate description than you might assume. A surname is a very personal thing. It is the tie to a person’s family. It carries all the history and tradition of your ancestors. And the average Brit has a surname that can be traced back to the Domesday Book (the first census in Britain) almost 1,000 years ago. That means we have a lot of history in our names.

Ancient names such as Temple, Southwark, Harred and Chips have already disappeared from modern society. But others are starting is become rarer. Names like Mirren, Nighy and Clegg are all on the verge of disappearing. Does that mean that the likes of Helen Mirren, Bill Nighy and Nick Clegg will be the last example of those names we ever see?

Hopefully not. But this is a situation that we have made for ourselves. The disappearance is partly due to an increase in anglicised Scottish and Irish names like Jones, Scott and Stewart, and partly due to the natural decay of family names through marriage and death. For example, a family name will disappear if the family has one daughter who marries into another family. There will be no-one to carry on that name into another generation. The same is true if the offspring die before having children. The name will have no-one to continue the line.

It’s not all bad news though... With the addition of a load of new and exotic names from the continent, our diverse history has never been richer. Think about it. In the early 20th Century, would Britain have had blood ties to Eastern Europe and Asia? Doubtful. But now, thanks to our integration with the rest of the world, we are now more multicultural than ever.

Photo: Carlos Goulao (Flickr)

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