What’s In A Surname?

A Journey from Abercrombie to Zwicker

David McKie

Surnames are much more than convenient identity tags; they are windows into our families’ pasts. Some suggest ancestral trades (Butcher, Smith, Roper) or physical appearance (Long, Brown, Thynne). Some provide clues to where we come from (McDonald, Evans, Patel). And some – Rymer, Brocklebank, Stolbof – offer a hint of something just a little more exotic or esoteric.

All are grist to the mill for David McKie who, in What’s in a Surname?, sets off on a journey around Britain to find out how such appellations have evolved and what they tell us about ourselves. En route he looks at the surname’s tentative beginnings in medieval times, and the myriad routes by which particular names became established. He considers some curious byways: the rise and fall of the multi-barrelled surname and the Victorian reinvention of ’embarrassing’ surnames among them. He considers whether fortune favours those whose surnames come at the beginning of the alphabet. And he celebrates the remarkable and the quirky, from the fearsome Ridley (the cry of which once struck terror in the hearts of Northumbrians) to the legend-encrusted Tichborne, whose most famous holders were destined to suffer centuries of misfortune and controversy. Elegiac and amusing by turns, he offers a wonderfully entertaining wander along the footpaths of the nation’s history and culture, celebrating not just the Smiths and Joneses of these islands but the Chacepots and Swetinbeds, too.

First published by Random House imprint (Penguin Random House, UK) in 2013


“Most books about surnames are doggedly encyclopaedic, so that once you have finished looking up your own name, and maybe the names of two friends and enemies, their interest dwindles.  But McKie’s is infinitely more fun: he buzzes like a bee from source to source, collecting all the sweetest things.”
Mail On Sunday

“A book of great zest and interest…wonderful eruptions of bare lists of strange or silly names, beguiling anecdotes, and interesting titbits”

“British surnames offer an astonishingly rich cultural harvest of geographical, linguistic and historical information, and this delightful book sets out to reap as much of it as it can…This intriguing, wide-ranging guide unlocks some of the secrets hidden inside the nation’s surnames”
Sunday Times

“David McKie’s incredibly detailed research and his diamond-sharp prose make this book a delight, full of wisdom and fun”.
Simon Hoggart

“There are plenty of surname dictionaries available, intended for quick and easy reference. What’s in a Surname? is resolutely not one of those. This is a book for reading, and it is one that requires persistence. In many ways it is as gnarly as the names that have intrigued and baffled onomasts for centuries, and that is its greatest asset”.
The Spectator

“McKie is an excellent guide t this study.  Unusually for a book so packed wiht facts, this is an easy read”
Who Do You Think You Are Magazine

The Tablet

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