Oxford surname dictionary free to access for a week

Are you using your lockdown time to investigate your family history? To celebrate #internationaldayoffamilies, The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland is free to access from today (Friday 15 May) allowing people to find out where their surnames (and perhaps their ancestors) came from.

The dictionary contains more than 45,000 names. It brings together a wealth of information about every surname that has more than 100 bearers (and more than 20 in the 1881 census), including where the name originated, the names of early bearers, its geographical distribution and variant spellings.

The Oxford Dictionary is based on a research project—Family Names of the United Kingdom, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

‘Careful and painstaking research’

Mike Collins, Head of Public Engagement at the AHRC, said: “This amazing database covering tens of thousands of family names was made possible by careful and painstaking research over many years by a team of researchers at UWE Bristol.

“It feels so appropriate to give people across the UK and Ireland free access to this searchable database for a week as we celebrate the international day of families. At a time when many family members are apart it will help bring people together as they discuss the biographies of their surnames.”

Sarah Williams, the editor of Who Do You Think You Are? magazine, added: “The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland is the most authoritative resource for anyone wanting to understand the origin of their family name. Having free access to this huge body of research will delight family historians across the globe.”

Roots of Johnson and Sturgeon

Examples from the dictionary cited in the press release include Johnson and Sturgeon.


Currently there are in the region of 151518 Johnsons in Great Britain and 2307 in Ireland. A big rise on the 1881 census figures which records 99902, largely living in North and Central England.

The name stems from the personal name John, plus the patronymic marker – son with one of the earliest recordings of the name dating back to a John Jonessone who lived in Surrey in 1287.


There are currently in the region of 1648 Sturgeons in Great Britain, and 133 in Ireland. In 1881, there were in the region of 1208, many of them living in Suffolk.

The name originates as a nickname, from the fish with the earliest bearer being a Mr William Sturjon whose name was recorded in a document in 1281.

If you do use the dictionary, the AHRC would love to hear from you—what does your name mean and what does it mean to you? They are encouraging people to get involved by posting a photograph or image that sums up what their name means to them on social media, using the hashtag at #familynames2020

The dictionary, which can be accessed here, will be free to access for a week (15-21 May).


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