If Your Name Were Smellie, You'd Change It, Too People with last names like Shufflebottom, Smellie and Cockshott are on the decline in Britain, while names like Zhang and Wang are on the rise.

If Your Name Were Smellie, You'd Change It, Too

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, Tom Goldman checks in from the Masters. But first, imagine you're in an office cubicle surrounded by your mates, waiting for lunch to be delivered. You try to intercept the deliveryman. Before you can get there, he's already bellowing, lunch for Smellie, A. Smellie, who's Smellie?

Maybe you just should've said your name was Arthur. In Great Britain, names like Smellie, Death, and Cockshott are declining. Do we really need to speculate why?

Richard Webber has studied the trend. He's a visiting professor of geography at King's College in London and has a Web site that tracks the origins of surnames. He joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

Professor RICHARD WEBBER (King's College): It's a great pleasure, Scott. Thanks.

SIMON: So why are all the people named Balls and Smellies disappearing?

Prof. WEBBER: Well, some of them are still there. We have even have a cabinet minister whose name is Balls. And where he comes from, it's really quite a common name. Nobody would think there's anything particularly strange about being called Balls though.

SIMON: Well, nobody where he's from, but…

Prof. WEBBER: That's the trouble. You move to someplace else, and a name which is quite regular and normal where you live suddenly seems strange to other people.

SIMON: Now, Balls comes from?

Prof. WEBBER: Well, Balls comes from a small town which is named Beccles, which is in the east of England, in east Angler, and it's about 20 miles from Norwich, which is quite a large city that you may well have heard of.

SIMON: Now, a couple of names: Shufflebottom, which sounds Dickensian; and Cockshott.

Prof. WEBBER: Yes. Well, Shufflebottom is one of a general category of names ending in bottom, and there are quite a large number of these names. And probably the most common of them is Winterbottom. And the name Bottom really describes a valley floor with level fields surrounded by hillsides. And the term bottom is just the name you would give to a valley if you lived in Yorkshire in the north of England.

So anybody who lived on the bottom floor of a valley would be called something-bottom, and that was quite normal up there.

There are lots of names starting with Cock. Many people called Cox - it's a very common name. Cockshott is perhaps a more surprising name and that one is typical in the southeast of England, where there are lots of places ending in Shott. And Cockshott was probably a settlement or a village where Mr. Cockshott's ancestors probably originated from.

SIMON: Do people who bear some of these names feel proud, do they sometimes feel they've become objects of ridicule these days, or a little of both?

Prof. WEBBER: Well, I think we can see that they must feel embarrassed. Because if we go back over the last 120 years since the census that we had in 1881, the proportion of people with of these sorts of names seems to have halved. So in other words, in about 100 years half the people who had these names that were perhaps a bit unfortunate have decided to change their names to something else.

SIMON: Do you have some favorite names?

Prof. WEBBER: Well, I do, actually, and I don't quite understand why. But there's one name that's, again, common close to Norwich. There's evidently a large settlement of people whose name is Bultitude. And it seems like a collapsing of beautiful and multitude. And I just imagine that in their garden all the plants must grow extremely vigorously and be very healthy somehow.

SIMON: Bultitude?

Prof. WEBBER: Bultitude, just like multitude but with a B instead of an M.

SIMON: Well, Professor Webber, very nice talking to you, sir.

Prof. WEBBER: Yes. Thank you very much.

SIMON: And good collecting to you, sir.

Prof. WEBBER: Yes.

SIMON: Richard Webber, visiting professor of geography at King's College in London.

I know that in at least one of the world's great languages the name Scott Simon must mean something ugly or profane. In the meantime, do you have a name you'd like to nominate for possible retirement? Go to NPR.org/Soapbox.

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