Is Your Rare Surname About to Go Extinct?

Surnames
21 May 2015
by

[Photo credit: Shutterstock]
You probably don’t know anyone with the name Chips, Hatman, Woodbead, or Nithercott. That’s because they’re among the approximately 200,000 surnames that have disappeared in England and Wales since 1901.

Hundreds more may soon follow. The actors Bill Nighy, Helen Mirren, and Hugh Bonneville, for instance, all have endangered last names on the verge of extinction.

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Families could save them, with the help of Ancestry. Like scientists who track endangered species, family researchers can discover surnames in peril and nurture them back to health.

With billions of searchable records online — including census, birth, and death records — Ancestry makes it easy to gain insights into the surnames in your family tree, including names that might be on the wane. Newspaper articles, army records, or town histories can also enrich your understanding of your family and why a name might be dying out.


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So, what are some of these endangered names? A study conducted by Ancestry has determined that there are fewer than 50 people with the following surnames:

1. Pober

2. Mirren

3. Febland

4. Nighy

5. Grader

6. Bonneville

7. Gruger

8. Carla

9. Fernard

10. Portendorfer

Some names are dying out more quickly than others, like the surname William. In 1901 it was the 374th-most-common surname, belonging to one in every 1,000 people. Now, not even 1 in 50,000 people in the UK has the name, a 97 percent decrease in prevalence. Other names in decline since 1901 include:

Cohen (-42%)

Ashworth (-39%)

Sutcliffe (-36%)

Clegg (-34%)

Butterworth (-34%)

Crowther (-34%)

Kershaw (-34%)

Brook (-34%)

Greenwood (-32%)

Haigh (-31%)

Pratt (-31%)

Nuttal (-30%)

Ingham (-30%)

Ogden (-30%)

Why do some surnames die out while others live on? Some were the result of changed spellings as people anglicized names to obscure foreign roots. Others petered out when a male line ended. World War I also bears some of the blame. Friends and neighbors from the same town often served together in the same unit, meaning that a generation of village men could be killed together as well. Since many surnames at the time were associated with a place, they, too, declined or were lost in the war.

Back then, people might not have even noticed that a surname was dying off. Now that Ancestry has converted tons of paper into digital records, looking into your own surname is easier than ever. And what if you do find a name at risk?

Some folks are adopting hyphenated names to help preserve a family name from the past. In 1901, “double-barreled names” were used only by the upper class, and just 1 in 50,000 people had one. Today, 1 in 50 people has a hyphenated surname, and almost half of them say it’s to preserve a family surname.

— Rebecca Dalzell

Find out if your surname is on life support. Start a free trial.