Part 2 by Rosalind Moffitt
Is your surname missing from the dictionaries of surnames, and are you intrigued as to its meaning? Perhaps your family has inexplicably disappeared from the records, and you don’t know where to look next? Or are you confused by spelling variations and wonder what the same name is, and what isn’t?
Last month, I explained how most surnames have changed, in spelling and pronunciation, over the years. Sometimes this change is simple, so the original meaning is still apparent, such as in Whyt (White) and Scheppard (Shepherd). On other occasions, the modern form of the name obscures the original meaning, illustrated by the surname Whinham, which first appears in the records in the 18th century, transformed by dialect and confusion from the Scottish place name Hounam.
Understanding these changes can lead us to a better appreciation of the origin of our surnames, and can open up new lines of enquiry when the ancestral trail goes cold.
A change in vowel can be easy to spot. The family of John Croyden, a warehouseman of St Giles, London, in 1881, no doubt originated from the nearby town with an almost identical spelling. However, the origins of John’s neighbour and namesake, labourer John Orderly, are more likely to lie further afield, possibly in Audley in Staffordshire. Back in Staffordshire, Homer Iton (there wasn’t a John) had travelled in the opposite direction, away from his original family home of Eyton, in Shropshire. Although our language has developed a sophisticated system of representing vowels, this system can hamper our research by disguising similar, or identical, names with significant changes to the spelling.
Like many others, the names Orderly and Iton do not appear in any dictionary of surnames. Yet surnames are derived from fairly predictable sources – from the forename of our ancestor, his occupation, place of residence, or some distinguishing characteristic. If the meaning of a name is unknown, an analysis of the parts, or syllables, that make up the name can help to identify its type. This can act as a stepping stone towards finding the origin of a name.
The names Darnington, Boynton and Luckley all sound like place names, as we associate the final syllable with more familiar names such as Darlington, Bolton and Swanley. If the name is based on a place, often all that’s needed is a bit of general knowledge, or 10 minutes with a road atlas, to pinpoint the probable origin of the name.
Unfortunately, not all surnames that appear to be based on places are found on a map
Unfortunately, not all the surnames that appear to be based on places are found on a map. There are a number of reasons for this. Many medieval settlements disappeared at the time of the Black Death from 1348, when whole communities were wiped out. Later, landowners turned arable farmland over to more profitable sheep pasture and evicted unwanted villagers. In addition to the lost names of ‘deserted’ villages, all names have changed over time – surnames as much as place names.
The surname Darnington is related to the place name Darrington in Yorkshire, which was originally known as Darnintone. The place name has lost a consonant, whilst the surname preserves the original form of the place name, which was first documented 1,000 years ago, although the surname itself is not so old.
Boynton also suffers from consonant confusion. This name is found in the Bristol area, and Yorkshire, but the two may not be related. The latter is from the village of Boynton in Yorkshire, but the families in the south-west of England are more likely to be survivors of a phonetic change that has cast them adrift from their origins. Hundreds of years ago the parish of Boyton in Wiltshire was known as Boynton. When place names change, the associated surnames sometimes change, and sometimes they do not. The resulting confusion can send us in the wrong direction on our journey into the past.
Often it is the alternative spellings of our names, which first appear as mistakes that hold the key to our family’s origin. The knowledge that the Luckley family also spelled their name Lockley and Locksley helps us identify either the places in Scotland called Lochlea and Lochlee, or the three villages in England called Loxley as possible geographical areas from which the first Luckley migrated.
The name Barras(s) means ‘dweller by the fortress’, according to A Dictionary of English Surnames by Reaney and Wilson. The name is found predominantly in Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland. Yet knowing that surnames can change, or lose, syllables, alerts us to an alternative meaning. There is a village in Northumberland called Barrasford, and the surname Barrasford, although very rare, has a very similar distribution pattern to the surname Barras(s), suggesting that both names originated in the same area. To increase the confusion, there are also two places called Barras elsewhere in the British Isles, so the name may have originated in more than one place. It may be that not everyone called Barrass is related, but some of those called Barrass and Barrasford surely are.
Some names, especially those new to an area, were adapted by the parish clerks entering them in registers to match more familiar words or names. This process, which I discussed last month, is called `popular etymology’. An example of the process is the surname Walkup of Derbyshire. Looking through an index of the 1881 Census, I was disappointed not to find an equally delightful Wakeup. However, the former is nearer to its source, Warcop in Cumbria. Walkup also retains the original sense of the name, which referred to a lookout hill, derived from Old Norse vorthr and Old English copp.
Combining an analysis of spelling changes and the distribution of names can be a powerful tool in tracing families beyond the limitations of the parish chest. It is also a useful strategy for identifying the original homes of families who have migrated from Britain.
Take the surname Nochles, which occurs in Middlesex in the late 19th century. Knowing that the name is a variation of Nockall and Nocholds, which occur in Norfolk, means that family history researchers should turn their attention to that county. Like many others, the name Nochles is not to be found in a dictionary of surnames, but it is the variations in spelling which contain a clue to its place of origin. The first home of this family is likely to be the village of Occold, just over the border in the county of Suffolk.
In conversation, speech becomes a long string of sounds, merging into one another, so word boundaries are lost and final consonants may become attached to adjacent words. For example, in ‘they’re over there’, the first ‘r’ can be heard at the beginning of the word ‘over’. There are documented examples of this process affecting surnames such as Nash and Noakes, which referred to individuals who lived atten the ash or oak trees.
I suspect that this process is more common than was previously thought, and it may explain many names of uncertain origin. The surname Orwin derives from a personal name, and is found mainly in Derbyshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. The surname Morwin is found in Lancashire, and Corwin predominates in Yorkshire. Morwin does not get a mention in the surname dictionaries, but A Dictionary of English Surnames claims that Corwin derives from corduan, a type of Spanish leather, and an early name bearer was William Cordiwant of 1327. Modern researchers have criticised dictionaries of surnames because there is often no proven connection between today’s surnames and early recorded examples. Many of these early examples were probably bynames (descriptive names), which had not yet become hereditary. An alternative explanation is that the names Morwin and Corwin arose from members of the Orwin family whose first names ended in `m’ and `Ir’. Try saying ‘Tom Orwin’ and ‘Dick Orwin’quickly to get a sense of how this might have occurred.
Other groups of names that may be related are the Devon names Aplin, Laplin and Raplin (perhaps from first names such as Will and Roger). There is also a connection between Inker, Minker and Rinker in the south-west, and Acklam and Macklam in the north-east. I believe that the original Roger Rabbit may have been an Abbot, as both surnames predominate in Dorset and Northamptonshire. In Bedfordshire the Maddams are a branch of the Adams. These connections begin as theoretical possibilities – which can only be proved by finding individuals or families who used both forms of the name – but being aware of possible changes in the spelling of your family name can open up new lines of research.
Identifying the type and place of origin of a name can also help us date the time at which a surname became hereditary. The surname Rogard, found in Cheshire, derives from the Old English personal name Roghard, borne by a single ancestor who probably lived in the region in the late 13th or 14th century, before such first names fell out of use.
Surnames were adopted in the south at an earlier date than the north. So it is likely that the surname Rockett, which is found in both Dorset and Yorkshire, was established in the more southerly county first. According to A Dictionary of English Surnames, this name derives from ‘a dweller by a small rock’. Or rather, Reaney and Wilson admit that Rockett ‘probably’ has this meaning.
Phonetically, the surnames Rogard and Rockett are very close, for the `g’ and the `k’ in the middle, and the final ‘d’ and ‘t’ are often interchangeable in speech. It is therefore quite possible that they derive from the same source, and that modern bearers of the name Rockett and Rogard, in Yorkshire at least, are related, and descended from the same individual. If this is the case, the Yorkshire form of Rockett is more recent than the name Rogard, but its history is long and varied. Like Roghard of Cheshire, the majority of our ancestors were farmers, artisans and labourers, who were rarely, or never, mentioned by name in any documents. Consequently our family history falters as written records fail. Yet every surname derives from one individual, who lived at the time when the name became hereditary, and so we can all forge links to our ancestors long before parish registers were introduced in the 16th century.
Yet every surname derives from one individual
So if you are stuck, and your family is not to be found in a dictionary of surnames, or has ‘disappeared’ from the records, it can be worth playing around with hypothetical changes to your name. This may just provide the break you were hoping for and, with a bit of luck and imagination, take you back many more years, even to medieval times.
About the author: www.nameswell. info is the website of Rosalind Moffitt of Nameswell Surname Research, an experienced family historian who studied English at Durham University and trained as a speech and language therapist. In the process of completing her own family history research, Rosalind found that many of the changes that occur in normal speech development in children are identical to those which have occurred in surname development. Using sophisticated surname analysis and distribution maps, she can suggest changes in the spelling of a surname that could lead to new lines of enquiry when the ancestral trail has gone cold. If you have any surname queries, or would like to know more about Nameswell Surname Research, contact Rosalind on www.nameswell.info or send an SAE to Nameswell, PO Box 118, Knaresborough, North Yorkshire HG5 8NX.