Book Review: Surnames, DNA, and family history

Surnames, DNA, and family history by George Redmonds, Turi King, and David Hey

This title is a cross-disciplinary exploration of the links between surnames, DNA and family history, and also includes linguistics (for the history of surnames).

The majority of the book is dedicated to the history of surnames: their origins, distribution, linguistic changes, etc. There follows a comparatively smaller section exploring the ways DNA can contribute to surname and family history. A fascinating discussion on the derivation and meaning of some surnames is included, in some cases, taking issue with some traditional interpretations. (Well, fascinating for the person interested in etymology.)

When reading such a book, I always wonder whether there will be anything directly related to my family history. And, there on page 80, is my biological maternal grandfather’s surname! Alas, it is not one of the names studied in more depth, but it’s there nonetheless. It also quite thrilling to see references to names of people you know. Most of the names looked at in the book are considered uncommon, so it was surprising to have links to people you know, and not just famous people. Scanning down the surnames and by-names index, just in the first column, I personally know an Agnew, an Alfrey, an Allen, an Anderson, an Arnold, a Bathgate…

Some of the factors that influence the link between surname and DNA resonated with my family history. There are adoptions within (and without) my family. My step-grandfather was illegitimate and, to his dying day in his 90th year, always wanted to know who his father was. (This impacted on my uncles, too, as there was some fluidity between my grandfather’s legal name, and the one we all used, and he signed most legal documents under.) My maternal great-great-grandmother was nearly nine months pregnant on her wedding day, so it is possible that she did not marry the biological father. (My paternal side, which is of most relevance to my surname, obviously, is much less involved. So, I wouldn’t expect too many surprises if there was DNA testing of my brother and his male descendants.)

This is quite an academic read, meant for serious genealogists - for me, who is a dabbler, it was eye-opening. However, it did make me very grateful for the eclectic mix of subjects I studied at university, the most relevant to this book are: genetics, Middle English, linguistics, history, Latin. Thankful, also, for my interest in etymology. So, you have been given fair warning – this is not a light read for the weekend. It is, however, fascinating and absorbing.

Annie, Central City Library

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