26 Mar 2009

Fewer Balls and Deaths as meanings change

8:17 am on 26 March 2009

The number of people in Britain with surnames like Cockshott, Balls, Death and Shufflebottom has declined by up to 75% in the last century.

A study found the number of people with the name Cock shrank to 785 last year from 3,211 in 1881, those called Balls fell to 1,299 from 2,904 and the number of Deaths were reduced to 605 from 1,133.

It also revealed that people named Smellie decreased by 70% percent, Dafts by 51%, Gotobeds by 42%, Shufflebottoms by 40%, and Cockshotts by 34%, said Richard Webber, visiting professor of geography at King's College, London.

"If you find the (absolute) number goes down, it's either because they changed their names or they emigrated," Mr Webber, author of the study, said.

He said that in many cases, people probably changed their surnames as they came to be regarded as in bad taste.

"It's because the meaning of words can change. Take the name Daft - that as a term for a stupid is a relatively recent innovation."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Daft meant "mild" or "meek" in Old English, whereas it means "foolish" today.

Mr Webber also discovered that the most popular names in Britain have not changed over the past 127 years. Last year, Smith, Jones, Williams, Brown, Taylor and Davies held the top five spots, in exactly the same order as they did a century ago.

He also found that between 1996 and 2008, the names Zhang, Wang, and Yang experienced the fastest growth.