On my bookshelf: A Dictionary of English Surnames

I saw A Dictionary of English Surnames (3rd Edition) by P.H. Reaney and R.M. Wilson recommended in a thread on the Baby Name Wizard site a while ago, referred to as a source of info for first names, and maybe I was the tiniest bit skeptical (how does surname info translate into first name info?) but the person recommending it was a longtime reader/commenter on the site and one whose knowledge base I had come to find dependable, so I bought a used copy.

It took me a little while to get into it. I like to read name books — sit down and read — and this book initially didn’t seem to lend itself to that — the type is small and it has a very dictionary feel (where dictionary=small type, lots of words on a page, lots of technical abbreviations that you always feel like you’re supposed to understand without checking out the key at the beginning of the book, maybe a little overwhelming). But I kept at it, picking it up here and there for a couple minutes each time. I started out by looking up my own last name, and those of people I know, and I really started to get into it. For one thing, there are loads of surnames that are considered “English surnames” for the purposes of this book, that I would never have thought! Like Devereaux. Because “English surname”=surnames used by people living in England, and this book cites instances going back to the 1000s. So, using Devereaux as an example:

Deveraux, Devereaux, Devereu, Devereux, Deveroux, Deverose, Everix, Everiss, Everest, Everist: Roger de Ebrois 1086 DB (Nf); Walter de Eureus 1159 P (He); Stephen de Euereus 1199 MemR (Wo); Osmund de Deuereals ib. ( W); Eustace de Deueraus 1204 P (So); Thomas de Euereus, Deuereus 1279 AssSo; John de Ebroicis 1297 AssSt; John Deveros 1385 LLB H; Robert Everis 1495 GildY. From Evreux (Eure), from the Celtic tribal name Eburovices ‘dwellers on the Ebura or Eure River’.”

(See what I mean about the abbreviations? A little off-putting, right? Stay with me …)

Did you know that Devereaux and Everest are related? Me either! And did you see those dates? A Roger de Ebrois from Norfolk (Nf) was recorded in DB (Domesday Book) in 1086. 1086! The first fifty seven pages of the book discuss how the surnames used in England came to be, explaining a French name like Devereaux (lots of Norman influence).

And there is indeed loads of info useful for choosing first names. Many of the surnames were patronymics, for one thing, identifying a person by his or her father, and some were metronymics, identifying a person by his or her mother — so those surnames began as first names. Other surnames were nicknames, pet names, or diminutives, either for a person’s characteristics, or for their actual given first name. Some of my favorite discoveries:

Fayle comes from the Irish Mac Giolla Phoil “son of Paul’s servant”

Fiddy, Fido, Fidoe come from the French fitz deu “son of God”

Filkin, Filkins, Filson are diminutives of Phil, which of course is from Philip

Pack, Packe, Paik, Pakes, Pash, Pashe, Paish, Pask, Paske, Pasque, Patch, Patchett, Patchin are all from various words (Old French, Middle English) for Easter; another example is given of William Paskessone, where Paskessone=son of Paske.

Scollas is a last name from the first name Scolace, which “appears to be the vernacular form of [Latin] Scholastica, the name of a saint who was the sister of St Benedict and the first nun of the order. It is found as a christian name in England from the late 12th century until the Reformation.”

Vivian, Vivians, Vivien, Vyvyan, Videan, Vidgen, Vidgeon, Vigeon, Fiddian, Fidgen, Fidgeon, Phethean, Phythian are all from the French Vivian, Vivien, which are from the Latin Vivianus, which is “a derivative of vivus ‘living,’ the name of a 5th-century martyr not uncommon in England from the 12th century. Its pronunciation appears to have caused difficulty and it is found in a bewildering variety of forms, not all of which have survived. In the south, the v was regarded as the normal southern pronunciation of f and was replaced by it. As the child says fum for thumb, and fevver for feather, and the dialect-speaker favver for father, Fivian became Fithian, and this, with the common interchange of intervocalic th and d, gave Fidian. The initial Ph is merely scribal. As Goodier becomes Goodger and Indian is often colloquially Injun, so Fidian became Fidgeon and Vidian, Vidgen. The normal Vivian is much more common than appears from the above forms.”

But my very very favorite discovery was this: Marriott is from “Mari-ot, a very common diminutive of Mary.”

Aren’t these amazing finds?? Can’t you see a baby Philip being called Filkins? What about the Easter names, like Pack, Patch, Pask, Pash, Patchett, and Patchin? I can see them all being used as given names, and what an awesome meaning — offbeat Catholic names are my favorite favorites!

Or wanting to honor Grandma Vivian but expecting a boy? I love Fiddian and Fithian, I see them as absolutely doable. (Also, I posted a fun thing the other day that shows what a full name looks like written out in different styles — like a name you’re considering for your baby, for example — and Laura commented that she found a perhaps unsettling disconnect between the sight and sound of some of her name ideas, so I found it particularly interesting that the Vivian quote above included the note, “The initial Ph is merely scribal.” It’s startling, to us parents who agonize over whether to name our daughters Sophia or Sofia, to think there was a time when the spelling of a name was a very distant afterthought — and maybe never even given a thought at all, until or unless it had to be written down for official reasons, and then only written down by officials, who probably decided how to spell what they heard. I guess it’s not that different from what happened to some at Ellis Island. Fascinating.)

(The Vivian example is also really timely in light of the awesome post up over at Appellation Mountain: 9 Creative Ways to Honor Loved Ones With Your Child’s Name. As I noted on FB, I’ve been wanting to write about this very topic for some time, but Abby did it so well! It’s an awesome resource, and the examples given in the comments are really helpful as well. This book could absolutely help with her first suggestion, “Use another form of the honoree’s name.”)

I am barely scratching the surface with the examples I give here — this book is over 500 pages of small-type info like what I shared above. It’ll take me ages to get through the whole thing, so if any of you read it and come across any other nuggets, please share them here!

 

10 thoughts on “On my bookshelf: A Dictionary of English Surnames

    • Yes! You are right. This book only shows how certain surnames came about in England, not the origin of every name or surname. It’s very possible for one name to have different origins — if you look up Maia on behindthename.com, for example, it’s a name in Greek mythology but it’s origin is unknown; it’s a name in Roman mythology meaning “great” in Latin; and it’s a Basque form of Maria, which is the Latin form of a Greek name that came from a Hebrew name whose “meaning is not known for certain, but there are several theories including “sea of bitterness”, “rebelliousness”, and “wished for child”. However it was most likely originally an Egyptian name, perhaps derived in part from mry “beloved” or mr “love”.” So three different, unrelated etymologies for what seems like the same name, but it’s really three different names with the same spelling and pronunciation. Crazy right! In this case, Fido is one of the ways the French “fitz deu” evolved as a surname.

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  1. R&W is one of my favorite onomastic books. I need to buy a new copy; mine has been used so much that the spine is broken and a few pages around ‘H’ are falling out. It has travelled with me all over the world. 🙂

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