Sunday, 25 August 2013

in the name of the father

I’ve been reading my local telephone directory. He’s going crazy, you might assume at this point, but the kind of list contained within the pages of a typical telephone directory is more fascinating than you might think. That is because we take surnames for granted nowadays. It wasn’t always so. People didn’t always have surnames.

The following remarks refer only to the British Isles. I know almost nothing about the way in which familial names have developed elsewhere in the world, except to say that Chinese names have existed in more or less their present form since at least the time of Confucius (551–479 BC). Surnames did not begin to appear in the British Isles until the thirteenth century, and when they did it was a gradual process, taking up to 200 years in some areas.

All the surnames that can be traced back to this period fall into one of four categories—patronymic, descriptive, occupational, locational—although some of the surnames that emerged later and are now regarded as British may have had more exotic origins.

Each of the nations that make up the British Isles has its own variant on the patronymic theme. In England, the usual form used the suffix –son following the name of the father (Johnson, Richardson, Williamson, etc.). The other nations used prefixes: Mac– or Mc– (Macgregor, McDougal, etc.) in Scotland; O’– in Ireland (O’Neill, O’Brien, etc.); and Ap in Wales (Ap Richard (= Pritchard), Ap Barry (= Parry), etc.). There is also the Norman Irish Fitz– (Fitzgerald, Fitzpatrick, etc.), which has the same meaning.

Although patronymic surnames are extremely common, the name of the father is not always obvious. Examples include Addison (‘son of Adam’), Anderson (‘son of Andrew’) and Dawson, which has the same meaning as Davidson and McTavish. Then there are surnames derived from what were originally pet names, including Atkinson (‘son of dear little Adam’), Dickinson (of Richard), Jenkinson (of Jack), Hodgkinson (of Roger), Hutchinson (of Hugh) and Wilkinson (of William).

Some surnames that are apparently patronymic may have other origins. Apprentices and journeymen might have acquired the name of their masters during the period when surnames were becoming fixed, so Richards is as likely to have meant ‘Richard’s man’ as ‘Richard’s son’. Other common examples of this type include Peters and Williams.

Descriptive surnames are ones that reflect the physical characteristics of the original bearer. Thus someone who was notably taller than his friends might have acquired the surname Long, Lang or Laing, while someone of below average height might have been named Short or Little. Strong and Armstrong are self-explanatory, as are Broad and Large, but the meanings of some descriptive surnames are not immediately obvious.

For example, White and Black referred originally to hair colour, as did Whitehead and Blackett (–ett is a common corruption of ‘head’), while Sharp meant ‘discerning, alert’ rather than ‘quick-witted’. Moody could mean ‘courageous’ or ‘stubborn’ and did not acquire its present meaning until the time of Shakespeare. In the Middle Ages, Stout meant ‘valiant’ or ‘resolute’ and did not become a reference to corpulence until the nineteenth century.

Lightfoot would have referred originally to someone who was fleet of foot, while its uncomplimentary opposite was Puddifoot, or ‘stumpy foot’. It must seem incredible that such an insulting name would have stuck to a man’s children, yet three of the most famous Scottish surnames are anything but complimentary: Cameron, ‘crooked nose’; Campbell, ‘crooked mouth’; and Kennedy, ‘ugly head’.

Some descriptive surnames are recognizable as such only after a moment’s thought, but names such as Crow(e), Finch, Fox, Hart, Hawk(e), Peacock and Wolf(e) referred originally to characteristics of behaviour that reminded people of the animal or bird in question. The final sub-category under the ‘descriptive’ label consists of names constructed from an uninflected verb followed by a noun (concrete or abstract), such as Dolittle, Lovejoy and Turnbull, which are also likely to have been based on behaviour.

There are so many occupational surnames that I started this section by seeing how many I could think of in the space of five minutes. This is what I came up with: Archer, Baker, Bowman, Butcher, Carpenter, Carter, Cook(e), Cooper, Draper, Dyer, Fisher, Fletcher, Fowler, Fuller, Hunter, Mason, Miller, Porter, Potter, Shepherd, Skinner and Turner. This list doesn’t include names where the spelling has been altered over the centuries, such as Clark(e), Faulkner (‘falconer’), Fo(r)ster (‘forester’), Gard(i)ner and Taylor.

Spelling is a constant problem when trying to trace the origin of surnames. Any changes may have been initiated by the bearer of the name, perhaps to address some perceived embarrassment, or, more likely at a time when levels of literacy were low, be the result of careless transcription by those responsible for the keeping of parish records. In fact, punctiliousness in spelling is a relatively recent phenomenon that can probably be traced to the emergence of dictionaries.

Surnames based on geographical locations reflect a common naming convention in the Middle Ages. Relatively few people ventured further afield than the distance they could walk in a day during their entire lifetimes, but it was more common for people to move to nearby villages and towns, where during the rest of their lives they would have been known by the town or village they had come from. However, identifying the names of places in people’s surnames is difficult, partly because of the way spellings have shifted over the centuries and partly because some surnames that are obviously place names may be spurious later inventions.

I will close this brief survey of British/Irish surnames with an attempt to explain why these surnames came into widespread use in the first place. Imagine a short, stocky red-headed man at the beginning of the fourteenth century whose name is Peter and who lives in the village of Tottington, north of Bury in what is now Greater Manchester. He was born in the nearby small town of Ramsbottom and makes his living making wains (‘wagons’). He likes his baptismal name, but there is a problem: the pool of potential font names was limited at that time—New Testament names such as Andrew, James, John, Peter and Simon were the most popular—and there are half a dozen other men called Peter in the village.

Peter, whose father is called John, is effectively Peter Johnson Redhead Short of Ramsbottom, Wainwright, and during his lifetime he might have been known by any one of these five occasional surnames. Peter’s modern descendants might carry the surname Peters, Peterson, Pearce, Pearson, Perrin, Perkins or Parkinson. However, given the fluidity of names during this period, Peter’s children might have been named after their grandfather, so their descendants might be known as Johns, Johnson, Jones, Jacks, Jackson, Jenkins, Jenkinson or Jennings (Johnstone is not a misspelling of Johnson but a reference to John’s tun or farm). This multiplicity of possible variants means that, once separated by time and distance, closely related people would no longer be aware of their kinship.

Peter’s lack of physical stature might be commemorated in a name such as Little, Short or Small, while if his shock of red hair was particularly striking, his distant descendants might now be known as Redhead or perhaps Fox, although this latter name could be an oblique reference to someone who was sly or cunning. However, if the attribute that he was best known for was his skill as a maker of wagons, then Cartwright or Wainwright might be the name borne by his descendants.

Do you have an unusual surname? Mine is common (‘son of Roger’)—the third most common in my home town after Wilson and Thompson—although I’m not related to any of the other Hodgsons in town, apart from my brother. There are hundreds of Dennis Hodgsons in the world, but only one of them is me. Thankfully, you are probably thinking at this point.

16 comments:

  1. It's also interesting to compare telephone directories. I once spent a wet day comparing that of Cumbria with that of Staffordshire, where I was living. I found that Staffordshire had far more Welsh and Irish names, with the sole exception of O'Neill, of whom there were more in Cumbria. On the other hand, Cumbria had far more "-son" names, apart from "Johnson" - but "Johnston" was much more common, this being a Scottish name. Very few people in Cumbria were called "Hill", which would be a rather pointless name in Lake District geography! Stoke-on-Trent had few people called "Potter", showing that the ceramic industry was a latecomer there. I believe that Carlisle is the only town in England where "Smith" isn't the most common surname: in Carlisle it is "Graham". Comparisons with directories from other towns would be interesting if anyone would care to do it.

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    1. You’re right to suggest that a wealth of interesting information can be gleaned from telephone directories Peter, although it would obviously take a lot of hard work. Thank you for your acute observations on the subject. I do wonder, though, whether electoral registers would be a more accurate source, especially nowadays when a lot of people have a mobile phone but not a landline.

      By the way, you’ll know better than me, but your surname sounds like a place name. Do you know its origin?

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  2. Dennis, this is such an interesting and informative post. I remember that back in the day when I was younger, names meant something, they were important then bit by bit people began changing things.

    It's always awkward when you try to spell someone's name only to be corrected because they put another letter on the end of it or somewhere in between ie: Brown to Browne etc. And then names changed even more when people began naming their children all sorts (maiden names). I mean, real crazy names (I won't mention any, just in case I put my foot in my mouth).

    I was laughing when I read about the names 'Cameron' because our Prime Minister is a David Cameron. And we've also had a Alastair Campbell and Charles Kennedy in politics. So all in all, I must look out for the crooked nose, crooked mouth and ugly heads. I can see why politics has gone so mad, ha ha ha.

    Also names are lost when women get married because they usually take on the husbands name, then if they don't have a male child to carry on that name, the name slowly disappears.
    Great post mate.

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    1. Crazy names Rum? I know what you mean, although I too will keep any possible examples to myself. As for the Camerons, Campbells and Kennedys of this world, I think that ‘crooked mouth’ is particularly appropriate in the case of Alastair Campbell, who was after all Tony Blair’s spin doctor.

      On the subject of women not retaining their own family names when they marry, my maternal grandfather provides an interesting case study. Septimus Holmes was born in Great Yarmouth but moved to Newcastle as a young man, where he fathered eleven children. However, only two of his 26 grandchildren now carry the Holmes surname.

      I’m delighted to hear that you found this post informative. I could have made it much longer, except that my intention was to provide a brief summary rather than a comprehensive analysis.

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  3. An interesting read, Dennis. I haven't seen or used a phone book in years, and no longer have a landline. When I was a kid, the telephone directory was a means of finding people with amusing last names to prank call Poor Charles Bean received many throaty and provocative calls from a certain Mrs. Strawberry :-D

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    1. A use for a telephone directory that I hadn’t thought of Kris. Perhaps I should have, given that in my childhood, we used to ring people at random. When the call was answered, we would say “Is that *** on the line?” When we received a positive answer, we would then say “You’d better get off it then, there’s a train coming.”

      Silly, I know, but we did daft things when we were young.

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  4. Dennis,

    I really enjoyed your post. Really interesting.
    My lastname is Jelovčan and according to my grandfather (slovenian) it has a locational origin. It seems that once upon a time the family lived in a mount wich was in time named after the Jelka trees in it (Abies Alba).
    I live in Argentina, and my first name is Javier (from the Basque expression etxe berri, meaning "new house"). So my full name Javier Jelovčan is quite unique, I never found another person with the same name.

    Best Regards

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    1. Thank you for your comment Javier. So much human history is concealed within the names we give ourselves.

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  5. I must say, Dennis that was as much a revelation as it was a gripping account. Yes, the names have had more or less a similar journey across the latitudes and longitudes, what with the very descriptive convention of American Indian tribes, e.g., 'Dances with Wolves'!

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    1. Thank you Uma. We are all acute observers of our fellow men and how they behave, and Dances with Wolves is an excellent example of what I suspect is a universal human characteristic. Nicknames fulfill a similar function nowadays: for example, ‘Lofty’ is as likely to be a reference to a person’s height as a shortening of Lofthouse.

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  6. Dennis:
    In furtherance of my earlier comment & your reply; the Shilston name comes from Devon. There is a 16th century Shilston coat of arms in the church at Crediton, north of Exeter, and at Modbury in south Devon there is a farm called Shilston Barton, standing on the Shilston brook. I think the name was originally "Shelf-stone"; that is, two upright stones with a flat stone on top, like a miniature Stonehenge. I suppose an ancestor had one of these on his land.
    There is still a lot of regional variation in surnames. Up in the Lake District & the Borders, specifically local names include Graham, Armstrong, Eliot, Nixon, Johnston. When I moved to Stoke I found several names uncommon elsewhere, such as Kelsall, Colclough and Tellwright. I'd be interested to hear of other people's findings.
    Peter

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    1. It doesn’t surprise me that you knew where your name originated Peter. Mine, as I’ve pointed out, is very common, but it’s probably more common in Penrith and its surroundings than it is throughout England as a whole, so it could be added to the list of names local to the Lakes/Borders that you cited.

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  7. This is true! I never met anyone called Hodgson till I came to Penrith, then I found two of you in the same class!

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  8. Dennis, I love reading your blog posts about this part of the world where my ancestors lived for at least hundreds of years. And this about names is so interesting to me because I've been doing genealogy since I was a teenager. I must add you to the "Sites I Visit" page on my blog.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Jean. If you’re referring to the northwest of England, I should warn you that I’ll be going back to Hong Kong in October, and I shall be writing about life there until next summer, when I’ll be back in England again. However, I like to think that there’s always something interesting to read here.

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