In the Guardian yesterday, a light-handed review of a recent light-handed book on surnames: “What’s in a Surname? A Journey from Abercrombie to Zwicker by David McKie” by Sam Leith.  (Not all the way to Zwicky, but then you can’t have everything.)

Leith writes:

Of course the first thing you do is look for your own surname in the index. Who wouldn’t? I’m afraid the chances are that it’s not there. This is not that sort of book. Rather, it is in its rambling way the sort of book that tells you about that sort of book.

What’s in a Surname? is in part a social history of surnames in general, in part a digressive meditation on their meanings (in local politics, in social hierarchy, in fiction), and in part a history of the people who have been interested in them – beginning with William Camden, the 16th-century researcher “whose findings on surnames would not be greatly enhanced for centuries afterwards”.

… It’s to the Normans that we owe heritable surnames. It is to, first, curious amateurs such as Camden and, latterly, academic professionals in linguistics, genetics and anthropology that we owe such understanding as we have of their connections and origins. These people are known as “onomasticians”, and they trade in “non-paternal transmissions resulting from non-paternity events, charactonyms, isonomy, brick walls, daughtering out, lexeme retrieval, [and] uxorilocality”. The name for their addiction is, apparently, “progonoplexia”.

… he tours the world of the surname: the origins of same, difficulty of tracing them (the “bogs and quagmires” into which researchers are prone to fall, and the “brick walls” into which they frequently bark their noses), traumatising effects of going nameless, quaintness of clubs for people who share a name, and anything else surname-related that occurs to him. A lot occurs to him.

Acoording to Leith, the book rambles in an entertaining way — so it might not be to everyone’s taste.


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