What's Behind the Name

THE stories of family names have proved of wide personal interest. The pioneers in the field found that every yard of the ground over which they traveled was beset with obstacles in every way as great as those that impede the advance of students in the field of etymology. We have names that are supposed to be derived from the seasons of the year, such as Christmas, Easter, Lammas, Noel, Pask, and so forth, yet when one discovers that there exists in a certain English county the parish of Lammas, and that the Rolls of the County contain the name of Richard de Lammas, one may be justified in believing that the name is derived from the place where the said Richard lived, rather than from Lammastide. Noel may have to do with Christmas, but it has been suggested that it is a mere Anglicism of the French name Noailles, and not an appropriation of the French Noël, Christmas.

Perhaps a more interesting example is afforded by the name Leach, unquestionably one of a physician; but the surname Blackleach is not derived from it. In the Hundred Rolls for 1273, William de Lèche is described as a physician, but in 1397 the name Henry de Lache indicated a man who lived by a lake or pool, and the name Blackleach means a man living by a black pool.

Our personal and family names have been derived from many languages and from many sources — Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, Danish, Celtic, Gaelic, Teutonic, Norman, French, Flemish, Dutch, and so forth. When Julius Cæsar landed in Britain in B. C. 55, he noticed that the natives were painted in woad with signs and symbols. These symbols designated the members of the different tribes that opposed him. After this form of tattooing passed out, distinctions of costume took its place.

The origin of the family name is explained as follows: A man who founded a family had the personal name Adam; his sons became Adamin. The families multiplied; they spread over the land, and the head of each branch became the ancestor and gave his name to the sept or group of related persons who claimed descent from him. We may get an idea of how this worked from the Book of Genesis, in which we read: ‘Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth: and unto them were sons born after the flood. The sons of Japheth: Gomer, and Magog, and Madai, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras. . . . And the sons of Javan: Elishah, and Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations.’

Later, to the individual name, terms descriptive of personal peculiarities were added. If the descendant settled in some other part of the country, the region where he settled was added to this name, and so, in due time, characteristics, emotions, relationship, occupations, location names, dignities, common or official positions, pursuits, skill, natural phenomena, birds, beasts, fish, and other creatures, weights, measures, characteristics of locality, and even of disease, were used.

Every Roman had three names: the first, His individual name, as Cornelius; the second, one designating the family to which he belonged, as Scipio (a stick or staff, because this particular Roman served as a stick and might be used in guiding his blind father, and so the name was handed down as a family name to his descendants); the third, indicating his gens — Cornelia — that is, the house or tribe of which he was a member. All of the members of a gens were one people. Sometimes an agnomen, or name associated with some place of achievement, or the manner of achievement itself, was added — as Africanus, or Asina.

When the tribe or clan name was given up, only the personal name was left. The clan is a body of kindred having a class name and a tribal organization, usually ruled by a hereditary chieftain, as among the Highlanders of Scotland; a tribe, family; as, the ‘clan Campbell.’ Differing from the family, kinship in the clan is traced by only one line of descent. The clan is distinguished from the tribe in that the latter may consist of several classes of brotherhoods. It differs from the village in that, the villagers are bound by territorial obligations rather than by ties of kinship.

Personal names were found to be insufficient to differentiate one man from another, and there were not enough names to go around. Consequently, descriptive appellations were introduced. These were strictly personal, and expired with the death of the bearer. Ultimately surnames became hereditary, and in due time laws were passed requiring persons who traveled around without surnames to assume them.

In ancient Ireland the sept was a group of related persons claiming descent from a common ancestor, and subject to the paternal rule of a hereditary chief, especially in a branch of a race or tribe. These family names have come down the years with practically no corruption, and so, in their pristine purity, we have a galaxy, from Brian Boru to William T. Cosgrave or MacCosgair, the like of which cannot be matched by any other nation — the Scots included, for in the latter there has been so much crossbreeding that in some cases the original family name has been displaced by a later patronymic.

The history of proper names affords an interesting chapter to the etymologist, for it mirrors the progress of society, and it casts side lights upon the customs and pursuits of the people. We have borrowed names from everything, good and bad. Of the names on the London Stock Exchange of a century ago we have the following record: —

A Raven, a Nightingale, two Daws, and a Swift.
A Flight and a Fall!
Two Foxes, a Wolf, and two Shepherds.
A Taylor, a Collier, a Mason, and a Tanner,
Three Turners, four Smiths, three Wheelers.
Two Barbers, a Paynter, a Cook, a Potter, and five Coopers.
Two Greens, four Browns, and two Greys.
A Pilgrim, a King, a Chapel, a Chaplain, a
Parson, three Clerks, and a Pope,
Three Baileys, two Duns, a Drab, and a Hussey!
A Hill, a Dale, and two Fields.
A Rose, two Budds, a Cherry, a Flower, two
Vines, a Birch, a Fearn, and two Peppercorns.
A Steel, two Bells, a Pulley, and two Banisters.

This list contains the names of birds, beasts, occupations, callings, colors, officials, flowers, and so forth.

A name, no matter how insignificant, invariably brings to mind the person who bears it; the personal appearance, moral attributes, or some event with which he or she is identified. Its mere mention may cover with blushes the cheek of a maiden who believes her secret about to be revealed, or increase the heart throb of the man who loves her, fire with rage the eyes of an enemy, or awaken the deepest emotions of one separated by distance from a beloved friend. This is the power that distinguishes a proper name from a common one. So many of our common words have been used to form proper names — to wit: Goodfriend, Greatheart, Dearborn, Love, Darling, and the like. With ’love’ alone we have formed ten names, from Loveday to Lovethorpe.

Originally all names were significant. The father of a family would call each one of his children by some distinctive term, and they in return would give him a name by which he was distinguished from other men. At the outset a single name was assigned to each individual, and that name was given to him in allusion to some circumstance connected with his person or relating to his birth, or some hope that sprung from the heart of his parents. Color and complexion are responsible for a number of these, such as Fairchild, Lilywhite, Blackhead, and Whitelock. Sometimes the form of the head was used, and so we have Greathead, Longhead, and Littlehead; then again, the size of the man was taken into account, and so we have Longman, Longfellow, and Longshanks, Short and Shorter, Slight and Small, and Tallman. The name of a well-known lexicographer, for example, is to be traced to a physical characteristic — long sight. It is a corruption of the Italian visiatello, a word that means farsighted. The name was spelled Visiataly in old English registers; an ancestor, the first Henry Vizetelly, was buried in the parish of Saint Botolph’s, Bishopsgate, London, in 1691. Early forbears left Italy for England in the days of Mary Tudor.

When only given names were common, and they were too few to go around, some distinguishing characteristics were added, and so we got Black Barnabas, whose family, by transposition of the given name and assumption of the characteristic, later became known as Black. Timothy Blunt was once Blunt Timothy. Dignities and the priestly offices gave us King, Prince, Duke, Marquis, Earl, Baron, Lord, and Knight; Pope, Cardinal, Bishop, Dean, Archdeacon, Fryer, Monk, and Priest. The habits of persons were sometimes responsible for patronymics. From this source we get Allwork, Careless, Drinkwater, Godliman, Goodchild, Greatheart, Pert, Reckless, Quickly, Stiff, Still, Slowman, and Whistler. Sometimes property owned was used, as in the case of the names Chisel, Chicken, Leatherbarrow, Birdwhistle, Appletree.

In time the localities where men dwelt supplied their names. In this way place names became personal names, whether of hamlet, village, or town, pond or lake, forest, wood, or green, hill and dale, ferry, bridge, or stream.

This was a most prolific source and includes, among names beginning with At- alone, Atkill, Atmoore, Atbridge, Attridge, Attwater, and Attwood. Then there are such others as Bathgate, Bathurst, Belcombe, Beecham, Birdbrook, Blackburn, Boswell, Bodicote, Bridgman, Bywood, Bywater, and Burnside.

Next in number were, and still are, the occupational names. Among these may be cited Abbott, Aleman, Archer, Arrowsmith, Ashburne, Blacksmith, Butcher, Carder, Carpenter, Caterer, Chapman, Constable, Cooper, Ditcher, Farmer, Ferrier, Webster, and many more. The elements were represented by such names as Dawn, Fairweather, Fineweather, Freeze, Frost, Sky, Shade, Summerfield, Sunshine, Spring, Fall, and Midwinter.

Bird life has provided names through nearly all the letters of the alphabet, beginning with Bird and ending with Wren. We have to this day Corbett from ‘corbie,’ and Cranes, Crows, Drakes, Daws, and Doves; Fowles, Finches, and Falcons; Grouse and Goslings; Hawkes and Herons; Jays, Kites, Nightingales; Peacocks, Partridges, and Parrots; Rooks and Swans; Sparrows and Swifts; Tealls and Turtles. From quadrupeds we have drawn Badger, Bullock, Beaver, Catt, Fox, Hart, Hare, Lion, Lamb, Stagg, and Tiger. The fish have furnished a number, too, such as Bass, Chubb, Grayling, Herrington, Ling, Pike, Perch, Ray, Roach, Salmon, and Whiting.

Another source of personal names is that derived from weapons, as Gunn, Dagg, Spear, Spearman, Spareshot, Pike, Pickering, and so forth; and from utensils, such as Spooner and Spoon, Pitcher, Ewer, Jug, Napkin; and in connection with the last the following story is told. In the County of Sussex, England, there once resided a farmer from Lewes, one of its two county towns. He bore the name of Napkin Brookes. Both of these names he inherited from his grandfather, a foundling, who had been exposed at some place in Surrey, tied up in a napkin, and laid on the bank of a brook. As no trace of the child’s parents could be found, it was named Napkin Brookes. Another Sussex family bears the name of By-the-Sea, because, according to tradition, the first member of the family was discovered, when an infant, abandoned on the sandy beach.

All that has been said here applies not merely to the names of the Englishspeaking races, but to the names of the other races of Europe and elsewhere. For example, the French names Charpentier, Delair, Lesueur, Parfait, Rameau, and the like, are all occupational names; so, also, are the German names Bauer, Dichter, Lehrer, Kaufman, Schmidt, and so forth, and such Spanish names as Carpintero, Carnicer, Herrera, and Zapatero.