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Great Britain Research, Stephen Thomas

Great Britain Research

Stephen Thomas

The Evolution of Surnames

It is quite common to find that a person or an institution has misspelled your name on a bill or a letter or even when reading it back to you. This is something that most of us find most annoying – especially if the name is fairly common. It occurs in the main because the person who enters it or reads it to you has their own idea of how it should be spelled. Almost every name has typical misspellings or pronunciation errors associated with it. For example there is an old Kent name of Vinson which has nothing to do with the son of anyone at all let alone a man called “Vin”. It in fact is a variant of Vincent a fairly common Anglo-French name borne by a 3rd century Spanish martyr.

So many names end in “son” that when the name Vincent is subjected to the soft consonant sounds of the southern rural accent it sounds more like Vinson than Vincent. Out of this mix-up the name Vinson was created and exists to this day. It has evolved from another name by this very common process.

When you come to research your own surname’s history you may in fact find it difficult to even find it with the same spelling as it has today. Not only may it have been spelled very differently hundreds of years ago but you may even know of somebody in your family’s past who changed the spelling of the name. You are likely to find several different spelling and must never fall into the trap of thinking that a particular family is not your own because the name is slightly different. Language changes constantly and carelessness and illiteracy multiply the ways in which a name might be spelled. Often in the middle ages a man might not even know himself how it was spelled, only the way it sounded. It might be left to the town clerk or the visiting tax collector to spell it the way it sounded to him.

We cannot always blame our ancestors for these changes in our names over the years. In these days of Received Pronunciation and BBC English we tend to forget that before national education systems were put in place the spelling of words and names was variable. Furthermore there was not really a right or wrong way to spell. There was a sort of consistency regionally and perhaps amongst groups of academics and specialists like Dr Johnson who compiled his famous Dictionary and others; but to spell things differently was not frowned upon as it might be today.

What changed this to a great degree were the Education Acts which set up National Schools throughout the nineteenth century and in particular the 1870 Education Act which provided for genuine mass education on a scale never seen before.

Even after this standardisation people have changed their names from the embarrassing to less comic options. For example John Cheese whose name meant a maker or seller of cheese became John Cleese, a name that has no meaning. Bottoms become Bothams.

Often names were changed for political or social reasons. A family may have wished to cover up associations which at the time might have caused them problems. We need only look at the surname Mountbatten, a translation of Battenberg, of German origin. Earl Mountbatten who died in 1979 was a grandson of Queen Victoria, son of Prince Louis of Battenberg and uncle of Prince Charles. The surname was changed in 1917 as a result of anti-German feeling among the population. Importantly for the evolution of surnames, and this is generally true, there is no prospect of going back to the former name even if feelings amongst the populace change.

Sometimes there may have been an alteration for the sake of simplification and those endings previously spoken of which were relational and stated this was the “son of” were dropped and Johnson shortened to Johns and even back to John, becoming then a surname in its own right. Occupational and locational beginnings and endings might be dropped also. The Gaelic ‘ua’ meaning ‘grandson of ‘ was changed to ‘O’, but was then dropped by many Irish emigrants in the 19th century, so you should always look for Connor as well as O’Connor in census returns and other indexes.

Long complicated names change and become fixed in their new version. Thus the name Featherstonehaugh is pronounced Fanshaw and Cholmondeley becomes Chumley. In these days of high literacy rates there is less likelihood that the longer version will evolve into the more refined and literal name but it is never impossible because a name is just what a person chooses to call themselves so that every one of us has the power to decide how we spell and pronounce our names. This is a basic right that remains ours to exercise. We can abandon one name and take on another completely different one perfectly legally.

Evolution of surnames is like Chinese Whispers!

It is something like Chinese whispers. The game where a phrase is corrupted into a completely different sentence as it is passed on from one person to another. Take the name Farrar for example, a Yorkshire name for a smith or a worker in iron. It comes ultimately from the Latin ferrum meaning iron. This surname has recorded changes in the following order: Farrier, Ferrier, Ferrer, Ferrar, Farrer, Farrah, Farrey, Farrow, Faro, Pharrow, Pharoah, Varah, Varey, Varrow and Vairow!

Unexpected variants:

Adburgham for Abram

Andred for Underwood

Blood for (ap)Lloyd

Forker for Farquhar

Coward for Cowherd

Edgar for Adair

Hewitt for Howard

Giggle for Jekyll

Nevitt for Knight

Laverick for Lark

Learned for Leonard

Mallet for Mallard

Maskell for Marshall

Nutter for Nothard

Pertuce for Pertwee

Shreeve for Sherrif

Tipple for Theobold

Wymer for Gymer

It can be seen that unusual or even comic names had an earlier existence as a fairly widespread or well known surname but have evolved through misinterpretation into something completely different and have added to the immense variety of our stock of surnames.


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