TOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 March 2012
This is a review of the 1996 edition of this large work, originally published in 1988. The opening sentence of its forty-page introduction states that, "This dictionary is intended as a reference work for surname researchers, genealogists, family historians, local historians, social historians, historical linguists, comparative linguist, demographers, and other readers, in all parts of the world where European surnames are of interest."
The editors continue, "Although the surnames of the British Isles are the primary focus of this dictionary, they are not its exclusive focus." Hence English-spoken surnames that originate in the rest of Europe are included, but not those from, for example, the Indian subcontinent or China and Japan. But the editors are hopeful that future editions will expand to incorporate these.
In a dictionary of this size it is not possible to account for every single surname in the English-speaking world; rather we are told that, "The entries in the present work are selected on two separate but overlapping principles: frequency and informativeness ... Thus the dictionary consists of a mixture of common names which are included whether or not their origin is known, and uncommon names about which useful information can be offered." The editors provide a fascinating account as to how the choosing of names for inclusion was managed.
With regard to its coverage, I can provide two examples. Going back over seven generations in my own family tree, names appear in the dictionary for thirteen of eighteen family names: thus we have entries for `Weaver', `Pascoe', `Tye', `Andrews', `Brooke', `Mills', `Owen', `Taylor', `Trowbridge', `Baverstock', `Davy', `Draper', `Pearce', but not `Casley', `Lambden', `Siddons', `Redstone'. I also checked the thirty-three surnames of my old school class: all had entries apart from five (`Bastone', `Casley', `Larbelestier', `Minhinnick', and `Northam').
My edition is, without doubt, already out of date, in that the advent of home computers, greater complexity of computerisation in academic institutions, and the rise of popular genealogical studies in home and institution alike has radically enlarged both the depth and breadth of surname studies. Indeed, on more than one occasion, this book's introduction refers to future research and computerised databases filling out and discovering more about what was then pitifully known about some names. But this does not make this volume automatically without some use. Far from it.
To begin with, there is a large section exploring the typology of surnames, followed by "a brief overview of the principal characteristics of surnames in each of the national or cultural groups mentioned in this dictionary." This is worth reading, not only for the valuable information contained therein, but also because it explains how and why the dictionary's contents are delineated. For examples of the former, we learn the surprising derivation of the Irish name `Munday'; how the Bretons who came over with William the Conqueror settled mostly in East Anglia; how surnames precede forenames in Hungary; and the ornamental strength of Jewish - and Swedish - surnames. For examples of the latter, we learn that, "The coverage of Greek surnames ... is strictly limited" and that Slovene and Macedonian surnames are not covered in the dictionary at all.
The vast bulk of this book consists of the dictionary entries themselves, of course, many of which are quite long and detailed. I found much fascinating information here, such as that `Liechtenstein' is a place named after the family (rather than the other way round), and that whilst `Davie' is generally seen as a diminutive of `David', in Devon it can be derived from the `de Vye' family. It's all good stuff, and the book will delight both the serious researcher and the casual reader who likes to dip into the wells of knowledge now and again.