Did you know that surnames can go extinct just like species do? Think about it: do you know anyone these days named Chaucer?
One historical reason for surnames becoming extinct was World War I. Often, men who were friends and neighbors served together; when there were mass casualties, a village or town might lose a whole generation of their men. Because names at that time were often specific to an area, a name could be almost completely eliminated.
There are less drastic reasons for a surname’s disappearance as well. Sometimes, a name is changed over time, or a male line may simply die out.
Since 1901, about 200,000 names have disappeared altogether from England and Wales, according to a study conducted by Ancestry.co.uk. These include
Hundreds of other English surnames are “endangered” — so rare that fewer than 50 people in England and Wales have them — and many more may be extinct within a couple more generations. These include
Actress Helen Mirren, whose name is on that list, was born with the last name Mironoff, which her Russian father Anglicized to Mirren. Actors Hugh Bonneville and Bill Nighy also have endangered surnames.
Names that are dying out the fastest these days, as compared to the 1901 UK census, include the surname William, which in 1901 was the 374th-most common surname. In that year, one in every 1,000 people had the surname William; now, not 1 in 50,000 people in the UK does, a 97 percent decreased in prevalence. Other names dying out in the UK 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%)
More people researching their roots today has led to an interest in preserving rare surnames, and as a result, more people are using hyphenated surnames in England. 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.