My name

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In the late 1980s and 1990s, Oxford University Press published three books of names: The Oxford Dictionary of Surnames (Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges, 1988); A Dictionary of First Names (Hanks and Hodges, 1990); and A Dictionary of English Place-Names (A.D.Mills, 1998). Then in 2002, OUP decided to reissue all three volumes under a single cover as The Oxford Names Companion. I am naturally disappointed that they did not include a fourth title: The BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names (G.E.Pointon, 1983), as this would have nicely complemented all three.

Unfortunately, they did not take this opportunity of updating the volumes to make them consistent.

I don’t think I’m unusual in this: when I got my copy of the Companion, I looked up my own name. It’s there, in both the Surnames and the Place-Names sections, but the entries do not correspond.


Pointon English: habitation name from a place in Lincs., so called from OE Pohhingtūn ‘settlement (OE tūn) associated with Pohha‘, a byname apparently meaning ‘Bag’ (cf. POKE). Var.: Poynton


Pointon Lincs. Pochinton 1086 (DB). ‘Estate associated with a man called Pohha’. OE pers. name + –ing– + –tūn.

Poynton Ches. Povinton 1249. ‘Estate associated with a man called *Pofa’.  OE pers. name + –ing– + –tūn.

Poynton Green Shrops. Peventone 1086 (DB). ‘Estate associated with a man called *Pēofa’. OE pers. name + –ing– + –tūn.

(DB = Domesday Book; * before a name means it is not attested)

So we have three places from which the Pointons/Poyntons may take their name, not one. How can we decide which is the most likely in any particular case? University College London and the National Trust have come to our aid.

There is now a website,, which tracks the distribution of family names in Great Britain in 1881 and 1998.

This gives the absolute frequency of a name, and also its relative frequency (occurrences per million of the population) and ranking (where its frequency stands in relation to all other family names). There is also a map which shows the areas where the name appears most frequently. In both 1881 and 1998 there were heavy concentrations for both spellings in Staffordshire and Cheshire. Allowing for some of the south Staffordshire families having moved there from Shropshire, it seems clear that the Companion has got it wrong in stating categorically that Pointon originates in Lincolnshire – the least likely origin of the three possible ones for the vast majority of Pointons, who live in north Staffordshire and south Cheshire. Hanks and Hodges seem to have been beguiled by the spelling, which is clearly arbitrary, and to have ignored the evidence in their own research for the alternative (Poynton).

One Comment


    This database compiled by UCL is utterly useless when it comes to names of Manx origin. This set of names and their development is well studied and recorded, a process assisted by the fact that the complete manorial record – property holding, rents paid – exists for the first decade of the sixteenth century.

    In the current form most but not all of these names begin with the final sound of the Celtic “mac” = son of. Modern spelling may render this with K, C or Qu, the “ma” already falling into disuse 500 years ago!

    Hardly surprisingly, by the nineteenth century these surnames were well represented on the UK mainland, especially NW England, and elsewhere on the planet but the academics at UCL prefer to believe that the world ends at Formby Point, to misdescribe and misinterpret according to a naming system less ancient than the one they are messing with!

    Yes, of course I have pointed this out to them, politely in the first instance, but I have long since given up.

    (cross-posted at LanguageHat)

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