Is Mr Levison a Jew or a Geordie? That’s the question posed by linguists and historians, who have just concluded a four-year study into the history and meaning of surnames.
Researchers led by a team from the University of West of England in Bristol delved into the history of 45,000 of the most common surnames in the UK, and found that while some origins are fairly obvious, others are less so.
“The modern appearance of a name is not always a good guide to its origin,” said Professor Peter McClure, the Oxford Dictionary’s chief etymologist.
“For example, Levison looks like a Jewish name meaning son of Levi, and sometimes it is, but in north-east England it is a colloquial development of the Scottish locative surname Livingstone.”
The team, made up of historical linguists, medieval historians, lexicographers and expert advisers on Irish, Scottish and Welsh, used records dating back to the 11th century, and found that almost 40,000 of the surnames were native to Britain and Ireland.
The rest, they discovered, came from immigrants settling over the past 500 years, including French Huguenot, Dutch, Jewish, Indian, Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Africans.
The findings were published on Thursday in the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, which anyone can request from their local library.