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What's in a Surname?: A Journey from Abercrombie to Zwicker Hardcover – 29 Aug 2013

3.8 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Books; First Edition First Printing edition (29 Aug. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847946941
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847946942
  • Product Dimensions: 14.3 x 2.9 x 22.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 362,621 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

"David McKie's incredibly detailed research and his diamond-sharp prose make this book a delight, full of wisdom and fun." (Simon Hoggart)

"We are all slaves to our surnames. There is no escape from them. Be they grand or humble, David McKie sees behind every one a trail of genealogy and history, wealth and poverty, celebrity and shame. Names are the nation's most secretive record, our island still in code. It is brilliantly revealed in this book." (Simon Jenkins)

"Endlessly entertaining ... [McKie] buzzes like a bee from source to source, collecting all the sweetest things." (Craig Brown, The Mail on Sunday)

"[A] delightful book ... [McKie] remains throughout both a beguiling and erudite guide." (Andrew Holgate, The Sunday Times)

"A book of great zest and interest ... wonderful eruptions of bare lists of strange or silly names, beguiling anecdotes, and interesting titbits ... McKie has a whimsical cast of mind and a fine sense of humour." (Sam Leith, The Guardian)

Book Description

A brilliant journey through the nation's surnames

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is not an encyclopaedic book about the meaning of surnames, though it contains much interesting information, including strong reminders that we cannot assume we know the meaning of any surname.
It ranges over many aspects of the whole business of surnames - for instance, how they cluster in certain places and are completely absent in others. This is interesting, but I had the feeling that the author spends rather too much time on this, with too many detailed illustrations.
The book rambles through such things as feuds between people of different surnames that have lasted for centuries, the thinking behind stage names (would Frederic Austerlitz and Virginia Katherine McMath have been as successful as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers?), and the way that the place of one's surname in the alphabet can affect one's whole life. In academic publications, for instance, papers by multiple authors usually give the names in alphabetical order, which means that in brief references you can spend your whole career as part of the 'et al'!
The final chapter considers whether with the mobility of the present time, the growing tendency for married women to keep their own surname, and the ubiquitous use of Christian names in situations that used to call for formality, there is still a future for surnames.
There is a lot of useless information in this book (which is not a criticism!), but it also raises issues that are real at least for some people.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I've always found names interesting but I never expected to be blown away by a book dedicated to the topic!

The research required must have been phenomenal. Mr McKie's approach is systematic and although every page is packed with names and facts, it's a delightfully easy and entertaining read. I now know that Farmers may have originated as tax collectors, Walkers were cloth treaders and on the way have read about Gyldeballes and Sweatenbollockes.

But this is no lightweight work. It's a detailed social history going back to medieval times, looking at the origins of surnames and their distribution and change. It's easy to understand how 'names' have moved from their origins in one area and started to appear elsewhere. For example, the closure of Cornish tin mines caused people to look elsewhere for work and Cornish names started to appear in the North East. It's truly fascinating stuff when woven together in context. People migrated and their names were seeded!

This is predominantly a book about people and culture. It's quirky, fascinating, intriguing and in part raises as many questions as it answers. This is not just a tedious list of names, its a celebration of the richness and diversity of the English language. Anyone who enjoys reading will take something from this book. I found it a complete joy and one that I'll be dipping into again and again. Brilliant!
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I am still not sure why I ordered this. I saw a favourable review and just thought it would be fun.
The first few chapters were quite boring but then the pace and content improved and the chapters on pen names and literary characters names are really good. This can I guess be used as a reference book but I found it a good read in much the same vane as I enjoy a good biography. I'm glad I bought it and can see myself dipping in an out regularly.
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Format: Paperback
Most of us have some idea of the origin of our own family names. This fascinating book covers the growth and changing patterns of British family naming practices (onomastics, if you wish to know). There is a wealth of absorbing details, facts and trivia. Starting from a representative sample of British villages and small towns that all share the same name – Broughton, McKie covers a range of naming trends, including the intriguing insights into how DNA analysis is being increasingly used to uncover genetic backgrounds and associated names. On completion of this enjoyable narrative, I had a long list of further reading to follow up – always a reliable indication of a book that has been informative, enjoyable and thoroughly worth reading.
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Format: Hardcover
From the subtitle of this book I expected a study of surnames: not a comprehensive reference-book, of course, but at least a study whose starting-point and means of organisation are the names themselves. This is not so. The author has interesting chapters on various aspects of nomenclature, particularly on how people change their surnames because of class-based aspirations. Overall, however, the book does not deliver what its title promises. It is a poorly organised, diffuse study of a few aspects of the history of names in England (and occasionally abroad). It is irritatingly shallow and accumulates examples instead of drawing out wider patterns.

Just a couple of examples of irrelevance will suffice. When talking in one passage about gravestones, McKie mentions a company that will put a QR code on gravestones in order to give passers-by more information about the deceased. An amusing story to have found, yes, but where does that get us with the overall history of surnames, since the QR codes do not lead to some database of surnames? Nor does McKie even restrict himself to surnames, but fills the book with rambling sections on names in general (e.g. the outlandish Christian names given foundlings in Victorian hospitals). Interesting stuff, but it has no place in this book, which is not called 'What's in a Name'. 'Abercrombie' and 'Zwicker' are not even mentioned, and the subtitle gives a wholly misleading impression of the whole work.

One also sometimes gets the impression that McKie is trying to fill pages to meet a publisher's word-count, as when he summarises the plot of well-known Victorian novels or quotes Tess of the d'Urbervilles for two pages.
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