Surnames, DNA, and family history

Surnames, DNA, and family history. By George Redmonds, Turi King, and David Hey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. x, 242. ISBN 9780199582648. $28.82 (Hb).

Reviewed by David D. Robertson, University of Victoria

This approachable volume on British family names bridges revisionist genealogy and new genetic research in historical linguistics. Both the foreword and the preface intone Shakespeare’s quote, ‘What’s in a name?’, relevantly, as the book deals with claiming or repudiating one’s father’s (supposed) lineage. Without indicating so, the book is really comprised of two separate sections: Chs. 1–6 lay out onomastic issues and Chs. 7–9 tease apart biological questions. Greater integration of the two themes might make an already good read a superb one.

Certainly, DNA is mentioned only a handful of times before Ch. 7—usually to tantalizingly suggest how to resolve open research questions—but without developing these ideas. This part of the book is no less readable for it, however; many fascinating points are developed. We learn United Kingdom surnames with which scholars have traditionally simply assumed kinship and cognacy, based on superficial resemblances among names that often have distinct sources. Entrenched suppositions about a surname’s antiquity are frequently overturned when the oldest supposed exemplars are, in fact, informal sobriquets, not inherited family names. Surnames took centuries to become the established pattern of naming, diffusing from the highest classes, and in parts of Wales did not take hold until quite recently. Occupational names (and an interesting subtype, nicknames like Skarf ‘cormorant’ for a fisherman), long a shibboleth of British name studies, actually ‘were late to stabilize…a few were still not hereditary in the sixteenth century’ (22). Census and other historical demographic data, in tandem with such observations, allow many of Britain’s astonishingly diverse surnames (over 400,000 in number) to be traced to a single ancestral family living on an identifiable parcel of land. Numerous case-study maps vividly illustrate this (e.g. that of the Ashburners of Lancashire).

The briefer genetics-oriented second section, requiring different intellectual tools of the reader, provides background information on DNA (149–66). The discussion then moves to the connection between genetics and surnames. In a patrilineal society like Britain, lineage is culturally expressed in surnames; this can be compared against its biological expression in the Y-chromosome, which also passes from father to son. Examples of such gene-to-name correlations are discussed, like the ‘Sykes’ study and a study of forty British surnames. Caveats such as chance haplogroup similarity and the effects of genetic drift are considered, and powerful DNA tools, including the determination of ‘the most recent common ancestor’ among holders of a name, are demonstrated. The authors, thus, make a solid case for an interdisciplinary onomastics.

Certain inconsistencies in format and editing may distract the reader. For example, islands enter and disappear from maps. A glossary of relatively technical terms, like ‘by-name’ and ‘non-paternity event’, would be helpful. Also, the ascribing of popular-etymology name variation to ‘educated people’ (109) is an oversight. For the scholar, the lack of citation for many generic sources (e.g. ‘It was suggested some years ago’, 56; ‘Irish writers’, 94) is more frustrating and ought to be addressed in any second edition. These are not serious shortcomings, however, in such an otherwise well-presented book.