Telling Us Apart

On the Origin and Meaning of English Names

Think for a moment of a young couple talking in a hospital room about their new daughter. After months of indecision, they still have not chosen a name. Maybe they expected a boy. Mama looks at Papa and says, "You know, in a book I was reading awhile ago I saw the name Chimera. Doesn't it have a pretty, feminine sound? It makes me think of something shimmering and beautiful, like the sea. How about it?" Papa says, "Sure. Fine with me. Anything you like, dear." Little do they know that in Greek mythology, Chimera was a she all right, but a she with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a dragon. She was the great sky monster responsible for killer storms.

The moral of the story? We should pay more attention to what names mean. My last name, Rickard (a variant of Richard), means "kinglike and strong." Impressive, isn't it? If only it were true.

What do your names mean? If a name is English in origin, the meaning may be fairly easy to guess. Are you a Smith? Your first ancestor by that name evidently made his living as a metal worker, perhaps as a blacksmith. Are you a Johnson? The name means simply "John's son." One of your ancient forbears chose to identify himself by reference to his father, John.

Smith has always been by far the most common surname in America, and Johnson has in modern times taken solid hold of second place. After Smith and Johnson, the other most common surnames are Williams (or Williamson), Brown, and Jones. All these are British, as would be expected in a country where a great majority of the people have British surnames. The only non-British names that have climbed into the top fifty are Rodriguez (31st), Gonzalez (42d), and Garcia (44th).

Not everyone with a British surname has British ancestry, however. Many former slaves adopted English or British names because English was their mother tongue. And many immigrants exchanged Siminowicz for Simmons or Filiopoulos for Phillips out of a desire to join the mainstream of American society.

The English and the Scots learned the custom of surnames from the Normans, who conquered England in A.D. 1066, but surnames had already been used in Ireland for almost a century. The Welsh did not take them until Henry VIII united England and Wales in 1542. When people were still thinly spread over the British Isles, a single name was all a man needed. If you were called Wat (a common English name in the Middle Ages, short for Walter), you probably lived and died among people who never knew any Wat but you. But later in British history, when people began to travel more widely and gather in larger settlements, a particular Wat found it convenient to distinguish himself from all the other Wats running about. In reply to the question, "What's your name?" the answer, "I'm Wat," tended to create confusion. Therefore, to nail down exactly who he was, Wat would add further information.

  1. His place of origin. He might say, "I'm Wat from Kingston." Routinely introducing himself in this way might lead him to adopt Kingston as a surname. Once adopted, a surname was passed down through the male line to future generations.
  2. His trade. The answer, "I'm Wat the Weaver," might give rise to Weaver as the family name.
  3. His father's name. Wat might call himself Wat son of Will. Since time tends to hone a name to greater simplicity, the surname "son of Will" evolved to Will's son, then Willson, and finally Wilson. A surname of this type is called a patronymic.
  4. His nickname. "I'm Wat the small," he might say. In consequence, we have Small as an English surname. It is quite possible, of course, that the first Small was named not by himself but by others who looked down their noses at him.

English surnames of place are generally formed by the fusion of two different words. Woodbridge, for example, is wood + bridge, referring to either a wooden bridge or a bridge in the wood. Although centuries old, many of these names are still quite transparent. It takes no great astuteness to decipher the meaning of Highfield (high + field) or Oxford (ox + ford). But unless you know that "worth" is an old word for a farm, you will find the names Butterworth and Woolworth somewhat perplexing, and Oglethorpe will mean nothing to you at all unless you know that Ogle is a remnant of the old Viking personal name Oddketill and that "thorpe" designates a farm or hamlet.

The most common endings of these surnames of place are stated in the rhyme,

In ford, in ham, in ley, in ton,

The most of English surnames run.

If the poet could have squeezed more syllables into the first line, he might also have mentioned the endings "well," "field," "wood," and "by."

"Ley" is another spelling of "lea," a now uncommon word meaning "meadow" or "pasture." No doubt most names ending in "ley" intend its original Old English meaning: "a clearing in the wood." The word reminds us that in early medieval times, England had a very small population. A traveler looking for dwellings would find only a few here and there, in clearings hewn with hard labor out of the wilderness. The literally hundreds of names ending in "ley" cover every imaginable way of describing a space prepared for habitation. There was the western lea (Wesley), the eastern lea (Easley), the southern lea (Sulley), and the northern lea (Norley). There was the small lea (Smalley), the broad lea (Bradley), and the long lea (Langley), not to mention the high lea (Healey) and the lea in the valley bottom (Bottomley). Some leas were nestled among oak trees (Ackley or Oakley), ash trees (Ashley), birch trees (Berkeley or Barclay), linden trees (Lindley), plum trees (Plumley), or hawthorn trees (Hatherley). Others were the haunt of beaver (Beverley, although possibly this name means "beaver stream"), deer (Hartley), hawks (Hawkley), swine (Swinley), or even beetles (Bodley). Lumley was by a deep pool, Burnley had a stream running though it, Houseley enclosed a large manor house or religious house, and Stratley was by a street—that is, by an old Roman road.

Not all names with the suffix "ley" describe a clearing, however. Bailey is a form of "bailiff," and Finley means "fair hero."

"Ton," basis of the modern word "town," denoted an inhabited area enclosed by a protective hedge or fence. The area might contain a single homestead or a larger settlement. The hundreds of names ending in "ton" glimpse a fascinating variety of places, from Milton (middle town or town of the mill) to Hilton (town on the hill), from Morton (town on the marsh) to Horton (town on the mud). I give two meanings for Milton not because the meaning is uncertain, but because of the many towns by this name, some have one meaning, some the other.

The endings "field," "wood," and "ford" are self-explanatory. Whitefield was a white field, so called because of its chalky soil. A man known as Underwood came from the edge of a wood. Crawford was a ford frequented by crows. "Well" originally meant not a well dug by men, but a natural spring. At Caldwell the water was cold, and at Blackwell the water was black. "Ham" refers to a village. The village of Wenham was built on a hill that resembled a wen (a kind of tumor).

The ending "by" comes from a Scandinavian word indicating a farm or village. So, Crosby means "village featuring a cross," Willoughby means "village featuring a certain willow tree," and Darby means "village featuring a dar." Plain as day. But, you protest, what is a dar? Well might you ask. The name Darby is based on the usual pronunciation of the place known as Derby. So, Darby means "village featuring a der." Now you know. In case you don't, "der" is a remnant of the Viking word for deer.

The surnames of occupation include Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker (alias Chandler or Candler), and every other trade known in the Middle Ages. The meanings of many such names are still obvious today. Cook, Butler, Fisher, Hunter, Farmer, Gardener, Shepherd, Taylor (tailor), Glover, Shoemaker, Weaver, Carpenter, Mason, Miller, Brewer, and Painter are all familiar terms. But it is wise not to jump to conclusions. In the Middle Ages, a farmer was not a farmer in the modern sense, but a farmer of the revenue—a tax collector. And a painter was not a house painter, but a painter of stained glass. Some occupational names have lapsed into obscurity. How many Clarks understand that their progenitor was a clerk? Of course, a clerk then was not a salesman in a department store, but a member of the lowest clerical order. If you are a bit of an antiquarian, perhaps you know that Fuller cleaned and thickened new cloth, Scrivener was a scribe, and Chapman was a merchant or peddler. But what about Boyer and Dempster? Boyer, or Bowyer, was a maker of archery bows. Dempster was a judge. Proof that the set of English surnames became somewhat fixed during the Middle Ages consists in the absence of certain occupations. There is no Printer, for example. The trade of printing did not emerge until the late 1400s.

Many patronymics are easy to decipher. You can readily discern that the original fathers of the Josephsons, Paulsons, Richardsons, and Watsons were Joseph, Paul, Richard, and Wat. But from whom do the Dawsons, Carsons, Emersons, Addisons, and Batsons descend? From Daw, Car, Emer, Addi, and Bat? Almost correct. Actually, from Daw (a pet form of David), Car, Amery, Addi (a pet form of Adam), and Batte (a pet form of Bartholomew). Other old pet forms of Adam include Adcock, Atkin (which means "little Adam"), and Atch. From these are derived the surnames Adcock, Adcocks, Atkins, Atkinson, and Atcheson.

Whose son was the first Madison? Scholars disagree. Some say he was Mad's (that is, Matthew's) son. Others argue that Madison is a rare example of a matronymic—a surname taken from a mother's name. The female name at the root of Madison is supposedly Madde, a medieval form of Maude or Magdalen.

Some patronymics have been greatly shortened. Another form of Richardson is Richards. Harris is Harry's son. The most common patronymic signifying "son of Edgar" is plain Edgar.

Among the Irish, "son of" is succinctly expressed by the prefix "O," as in O'Grady or O'Brian. What follows the "O" is generally the Anglicized version of an ancient Gaelic name. O'Flaherty, for example, was the son of Flaithbheartach. It is commonly believed that "O'" is Irish and "Mac," which also means "son of," is Scottish, but "Mac" or "Mc" also appears as the first element in many Irish names. The Irish name McGillicuddy is a reworking of Mac Giolla Chuda, which means "son of the servant of [St.] Chuda," a seventh-century Irish bishop. The Scottish name MacPherson is close to the Gaelic original, Mac an Phearsain, which means "son of the parson."

The surnames derived from nicknames are an interesting assortment. We have a Thin as well as a Fatt, a Short and a Low as well as a Long and a High. We even have a Longfellow. Tall is with us also, although his name means "a capital fellow" rather than "of great stature." Among the color surnames we find unfair discrimination. The English were willing to be known as Black, Brown, Green, Red, Gray, White, or even Yellow, but not as Purple. Most of the first seven began as a description of someone's hair or complexion, but Green was probably a person who dressed in green (as did the men of Robin Hood) or who lived near the village green. Some names that look like color surnames from England are not what they seem. Pink refers to a bird, the finch; Blue is an Anglicized version of German Blau or French Bleu; and Orange is a place in France.

Many surnames from nicknames raise interesting questions. Where did the names Outlaw and Smellie come from? The first Goodenough must have been considered good enough. The name Truax must have been bestowed on a man famous as a major-league woodchopper.

It has been a custom among English-speaking peoples to pass a mother's surname onto the next generation as a first or middle name. If Chauncey Graves married Agatha Digby, their first son might be called Digby Graves. By this process, many names that were originally surnames have become more familiar as first names, or forenames. Among them are Stanley (stony lea), Carlton (town of the free peasants), Clifford (ford at the cliff), Hudson (son of Hudde, a pet form of Hugh, or possibly Richard), and Fletcher (maker of arrows). All the names that have migrated from last to first position have been used for boys. But a few—for example, Shirley (clearing of the shire), Ashley, Beverley, and Kimberley (Kimber is the modern spelling of several similar Old English personal names)—are now more often used for girls.

Only a small fraction of the forenames in common use derive from surnames, however. Many are based on Biblical characters, such as Mary, Elizabeth, Ruth, David, Daniel, and Jeremy. Many others come from the names of saints, among them George (patron saint of England), Patrick (patron saint of Ireland), and Agnes (fourth-century Christian martyr). Names such as Edward (wealth/guard), Wilfred (desire/peace), Edith (wealth/strife), and Osmund (God/protection) are old Anglo-Saxon names with shadowy origins in prehistoric Teutonic languages. When the Normans conquered England, they introduced many other Teutonic names that remain popular today: Henry (home/rule), Geoffrey (perhaps a variant of Godfrey, which means God/peace), William (desire/helmet), and Alice (short for Adelaide, which means noble/sort).

Peculiar names were once far more common than they are today. The first U.S. census, back in 1790, found people with surnames taken from every conceivable facet of life: Soup, Oyster, Radish, Vinegar, Kidney, Liver, Hash, Fudge, Pioneer, Pagan, Cusser, Spitter, Madsavage, Severe, Naughty, Toogood, Lazy, Measley, Cacklin, Ivory, Pencil, Curtain, Shovel, Stable, Bucket, Junk, Thistle, Toadvine, Ragbush, Pollen, Horse, Ox, Cows, Cats, Pup, Ant, Beetle, Fly, Hornet, Snails, Maggot, Worm, and Snake. Funny names have always been a special eccentricity of America. A visitor in 1839 complained of finding such names as Populorum Hightower and Preserved (pronounced Pre-ser'-ved) Fish. I cannot, for fear of lawsuits, tell you some of the contemporary names I have found in my researches. I will mention, however, that my own grandfather, in a moment of affectionate whimsy, gave my aunt the name Iva Valentine.

In America, someone who feels saddled with an outlandish name will likely change it to something more conventional. Herein lies one reason why we have so many Smiths and Johnsons.

Today, when the underlying meaning of a name has receded into the background, we judge its desirability by its associations. If Uncle Horace was an especially nice guy, we might give the name Horace to one of our hapless sons. Many girls have been named after flowers. Yet even flower names are not used indiscriminately. A girl can be a Rose or a Violet, but not a Snapdragon. A jonquil and a daffodil are essentially the same flower, but whereas one would furnish a nice name for a girl, the other—well . . . ? How about Daffy for short?

To see how associations control our opinion of a name, consider the poetic Old English name Eomer (pronounced A'-oh-meer), which means "noble/fame." The name evokes images of knights rushing to battle, of valorous men coursing upon a noble quest. J. R. R. Tolkien, in his epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings, gave this name to the prince of a warlike race struggling bravely against the powers of darkness. But with the change of a single letter, Eomer becomes Elmer. Elmer is really just another spelling of the same name. But do you find Elmer redolent of high romance? Probably not. Probably it makes you think of either Elmer Fudd or Elmer's glue. These associations are rapidly driving the name Elmer to extinction, despite its fine credentials.

Even though a name lacks bad associations, we are prone to dislike it if it is unfamiliar. If it is unfamiliar enough, we find it comical. A long-running comedy program on the radio when I was a boy was entitled The Great Gildersleeve, a reference to the leading character, whose full name was Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve. I wonder if the program would have enjoyed the same success if his name had been Harry Smith.

Some names strike us as comical because they have acquired a meaning never anticipated by their inventors. Perhaps those called Self have at times been accused of egotism, but their name is merely the vestige of an old word that can be translated "sea/wolf." The Strange clan, numerous in the South, would like us to know that "strange" originally referred not to someone who is peculiar, but to a stranger, a foreigner. The greatest misfortune, however, has befallen the Cowards. Coward is an old name which means simply "cowherd." A noble occupation, I am sure. But somewhere in history, the English imported the French word couard, which means "with tail between the legs," and spelled it "coward," like the surname, and ever since the Cowards have been the butt of silly jokes.

It is a shame that we have grown indifferent to what names mean. By casting aside their meanings, we have lost something of our heritage, of our own identity.