5 Main Sources of the Formation of “Names” in “English”

If we dig in the area of meaning, there will virtually be no end to the fascinating things that we can find. Originally, Cecilia in Latin meant “blind”, Helen in Greek meant “bright and shining like the sun” and Margaret was the Latin word for pearls. In Hebrew, Adam means “man of red earth”, Ruth means “friend, beauty”, Susanna means “lily” and Elizabeth means “someone consecrated by oath to God”.

In Greek, George originally meant “farmer”, Peter meant “rock”, Iris meant “rainbow” and Philip meant “the lover of horses”. Russell is derived from the medieval French roussell meaning “red-haired” and Morgan is the Welsh word for “white-haired”. Etymologically, Gorky means “bitter”, Tolstoy means “fat”, Adam means “red”, Douglas means “dark blue”, Lloyd means “grey”, Bruno means “brown” Deborah means “bee” and Linda means “serpent” and in Roman slang Cicero is the word for a wart on the nose. Similarly, Arnold means “eagle power”, Bathsheba means “voluptuous”, Gabriel means “strong”, Desdemona means “misery”, Duncan means “a brown warrior” and Oliver means “an olive tree”.

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These isolated instances of the history of names are interesting so far as they can take us but the difficulty is that they do not take us far enough. We have to ascertain whether these specific instances exemplify certain easily identifiable trends and patterns.

The deduction that we can make on the basis of available examples is that names of persons in English are derived mainly from names of places, trade names, nicknames, the Bible, and patronymics.

These five main sources of the formation of names in English will now be discussed in some detail.

1. Names of Places:

During the reign of Richard II, the Parliament passed, in 1379, a law imposing poll taxes on the peasantry. For the purpose of an easy collection of these poll taxes the government officials had to prepare a list of names of all adults in the country.

This list of taxworthy persons turned out to be necessary particularly because more than a million of people had already died and thousands of people were dying every year due to the unprecedented bubonic plague known as Black Death. As many people had identical first names, the officials preparing the list of names felt obliged to write in their lists not only the first name but also the surname and the profession of every individual.

So even those individuals who had no fixed surnames earlier were officially obliged to have one for the sake of their unambiguous identity. Another event which compelled people to have fixed surnames was the enactment in 1413 of the Statute of Additions which required that legal documents should contain not only people’s first name but also a clear mention of their trade and their place of abode. Just as Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary stabilized English spelling for ever, these two events in British history obliged every individual in Britain to settle on a definite and fixed surname.

Many people adopted the name of their locality or any one of the characteristic features of their locality as their surname. Many of those who lived near a body of water, for example, adopted Lake, Pond, Pool, Brook or Rivers as their surname. Ash (and its variation Nash), Cape, Church (and Churchill), Dale, Hill, Hawthorne, Linden, Marsh, Moore, Oak (and its variation Noakes), Shaw (an old word for a wood) and Stone are surnames of this type.

In some cases prepositions were retained as part of the one-word surname as in the case of Atwater, Bywater and Underwood but in the large majority of cases the prepositions were deleted. When the Vikings captured the northern and eastern part of England and established their Danelaw, they left a permanent mark on many of the place names there. These people brought with them a number of Scandinavian words.

Those two of the Scandinavian words which are particularly relevant to the origin of a large number of names in circulation in modern English are by (= settlement) and thorpe (= farm, hamlet). We can find by surviving in the modern countable noun bye-law (also written as by-law). Places like Appleby, Whitby, Grimsby, Derby, Corby and Rugby were named under that Scandinavian influence.

Some of the place names of this type, Frisby, Gatenby, Hornby and Kirby, for example, became surnames. Etymologically, the word Kirby means “a village with a church”. Similarly, many people living in and around places like Calthrop and Winthrop adopted the names of these places as surnames.

A number of places in England were named or perhaps re-named by using ham (Old English word for homestead), ton (Old English word for town) and wick (Old English word for village) and adopted by many people later as surnames.

Thus, surnames like Benham, Denham and Gresham, Hilton, Milton, Paddington, Pilton and Washington (the family name of George Washington, for example) and similarly well-known names like Pickwick, Wickham and Wickliffe were originally names of places. Lee and its variants lea and ley are Old English words for a meadow. Etymologically, the surname Priestley, therefore, refers to someone who owned a meadow and Farley refers to a meadow far away.

Like the French word champ, veld, velt and feld are Germanic and Dutch words for field. The name Roosevelt, therefore, is in a sense a compound word for “a field of roses”. Bloomfield is, in that sense, a compound word for “a flowery field” and Beecham, a compound word for “a beautiful field”.

2. Trade Names:

Many of the family names in English are names of the characteristic professions of the ancestors of those families in the past. Archer, Bowman, Carpenter, Coward (originally Cow-herd), Forrester, Goldsmith, Miller, Shepherd, Smith, Spinner, Taylor (from the French word tailleur) and Weaver are some of the common names of this type. Mueller and Muller are the German equivalents of the surname Miller used in English. Millers had a tendency to cheat farmers who brought grain to them and because of this Miller was not always a very flattering name. Mueller or Muller did not have such derogatory connotations.

In many cases there has been so much of change in the spelling of the surname and so much of confusion due to dialectal variations that one finds it difficult to recognize that those surnames are really the names of certain professions. Bateman, for example, is a corrupted form of Boatman and Akerman is a dialectal variant of Ploughman.

3. Nicknames:

A nickname, as we know, is an additional name used by friends, relatives or acquaintances for humorous effects, for expressing contempt or for indicating intimacy or informality. It seems that the nickname given to many persons at certain stages in history was so widely used that for all practical purposes it became their real name.

Their children inherited that name as one inherits one’s family name and after a few generations that nickname became established as the genuine surname of everyone in the family. As a source of new surnames, nicknames can be studied under the following five headings.

(i) The haves often felt that it was too much of a bother to remember the names of all the have-nots around them. As Brown (1984) has pointed out, “When a number of Polish miners came to Scotland to work, the foreman could not cope with their names. He ordered them to be called Black, Brown, and so on, according to their appearance”. It would be naive to assume, however, that this thing happened only in the case of Polish miners.

A more or less similar thing must have happened in the case of slaves at the time of the slave trade and in the case of immigrants whose names were difficult to pronounce. The real identity or the real name of the have-nots was considered utterly unimportant.

In the eyes of the masters the appearance of an unfortunate miner, immigrant or slave was enough to be a mark of identity. And that is how names like Black, Blackie, White, Brown and Red (with Reed, Reid and Read as its variants) came into existence. Such names, however, are by no means confined to the English language. Rousseau or Rouse in French, Rossi in Italy, Roth in Germany and Flynn in Ireland are exact equivalents of Red or Reid in English. Similarly, the proper noun White in English is the exact equivalent of Bianco in Italy, Le Blanc in France and Weiss in Germany.

(ii) Some of the nicknames referred to the most conspicuous part of the body of the referent. Brain, Foot, Head, Legged and Shanks are family names of this type.

(iii) Some of the nicknames that finally got established as surnames referred to the size and strength of the referent. Little, Small, Power and Strong are some of the examples of this type.

(iv) Some of the nicknames referred to the characteristic qualities of animals. If a person was cunning, he was named Fox; if he was gentle, he was called Lamb; if he was valiant, he was called Lion and if he was a man of power, Eagle or Falcon was used as the nickname for him. In many cases these nicknames got • established as surnames.

(v) It is possible that in certain cases the first letter of a man’s name was used as his nickname. It is quite likely, for example, that Kaufman was nicknamed as Kaye and Jeremy was nicknamed as Jay.

4. Biblical Names:

The Bible has been a perennial source of names, particularly for Christians in the English-speaking world. The Old Testament has been the source of names like Abraham, Samuel, Daniel, David, Jonathan, Sarah, Esther and Jeremy (derived from Jeremiah). The New Testament has been the source of names like Matthew, Mark, Peter and Timothy.

The Bible has been a very limited source of names in the sense that it has provided not more than twenty names in all but it has exercised a wide influence on names in English in the sense that nearly each of these Biblical names has been adopted by thousands (maybe millions) of Christians in the English-speaking world.

An interesting thing about Biblical names in English is that although the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the writers of the four Gospels and similarly the names of the Apostles like Peter have been adopted by a large number of Christians in the English speaking world, virtually no one seems to have adopted the name Jesus or the name Christ.

In this respect, names in English differ significantly from those in the Arab world, where the name Mohammed and, similarly, Ahmed, Mahmoud and Hamoud (the other three names etymologically linked with Mohammed) seem to be very popular among the Muslims.

5. Patronymics:

A patronymic is that system of naming children in which the names given to or inherited by children, particularly male children, show the dominance of the name of the father and the forefathers. It is different from the system of matronymics in which the names given to or inherited by a child show the dominance of the mother. Patronymics operate differently in different language communities.

In the Arab world, for example, the first name of a child is his own name, his second name is the name of his father, his third name is the name of his grandfather and his family name, if there is one, comes after the name of the grandfather. Patronymics have been one of the principal sources of names in English as well but here it manifests itself in the etymology of the first name itself and also in the etymology of the family name.

Besides, the patronymic element in an English name has no mention of the child’s father; the system in this case is patronymic only in the sense that it tells us about someone who was the ancestor of that child a long time ago.

The ending -son at the end of names like Johnson, Stevenson, Robertson, Jackson and Thomson is a patronymic element meaning “son of”. Etymologically, therefore, Johnson means “John’s son” and similarly, Robertson means “Robert’s son”.

But this is seldom true in real life. Johnson’s father’s name may be Paul or Dickens or Hamilton or something else. Johnson is John’s son only in the sense that a man named John was Johnson’s ancestor a long time ago, so long ago that Johnson has perhaps no way of finding out where his ancestor lived or what he did.

What is important for a student of the history of the English language at this stage is to note that the ending -son in names like the ones mentioned above is a patronymic element meaning “son of”. In many cases, this ending is abbreviated to a mere -s as in the case of names like Jones and Richards. Johnson in this sense is the same name as Jones and Richardson the same name as Richards.

The system of using the ending -son to indicate the name of one’s forefather is a Scandinavian system introduced by the Vikings around the middle of the Old English period. As has been pointed out earlier in this book, the Normans defeated the English in the battle of Hastings in 1066 and ruled over large parts of Britain as foreigners for a long time and then became an integral part of British society for ever.

In Norman French fils was used as a patronymic prefix. This became Fitz in English and led to the formation of new names like Fitz Geralds, Fitz Herberts and Fitz Patricks. The Anglo-Saxons had their patronymic suffixing with the help of which they formed new names like Browning, Aethelwulfing and Wodening.

Patronymics was not alien to the genius of the Celtic languages, however. It was characteristic of Gaelic, Irish and Welsh as well. Gaelic used Mac- (also spelt as Mc-) for son and by using this patronymic element it formed names like Macbeth, Macdonald, Mac Adam, MacArthur, MacDougal, McGrath, Macintosh and McMaster.

Irish used O for “grandson” and formed names like O’Brien, O’Henry, O’Hara, O’Casey, O’Connell, O’Leary and O’Malley. The patronymic element used by Welsh was ap-, the equivalent of Mac- in Gaelic. The initial vowel letter of this patronymic was often left out and the remaining consonant was either prefixed or it replaced the initial consonant of the original word.

So Powell in Welsh meant the “son of Howell” and Preece meant “the son of Rees”. In certain cases B took the place of P and so the descendants of Owen were called Bowen (instead of being called Powen) and the descendants of Evan were called Bevan.

The trends and patterns described above are intended to give students of the history of the English language an insight into the origin of names in English and not to discuss the origins of all possible names.

There are thousands of names whose origins cannot be described in terms of any one of these trends. What is, for example, the origin of Shakespeare, or of Byron or of Eliot? The devices for coining names in English have been influenced, moulded and re-moulded by numerous events in history and the Irish, the Welsh, the Scots, the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans have all left a mark on these names.

The original shape and meaning of some of the names have time and again been twisted beyond recognition, and in spite of all that has been written in learned books and articles on the subject, the history of a large number of names continues to be shrouded in mystery and ignorance. A great deal of research, therefore, will have to be done before the history of these names can be properly understood.