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The Romance of Names

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"The French and we termed them Surnames, not because they are the names of the Sire, or the father,but because they are super-added to Christian names."

(CAMDEN, Remains concerning Britain.)

The study of the origin of family names is at the same time quite simple and very difficult. Its simplicity consists in the fact that surnames can only come into existence in certain well-understood ways. Its difficulty is due to the extraordinary perversions which names undergo in common speech, to the orthographic uncertainty of our ancestors, to the frequent coalescence of two or more names of quite different Origin, and to the multitudinous forms which one single name can assume, such forms being due to local pronunciation, accidents of spelling, date of adoption, and many minor causes. It must always remembered that the majority of our surnames from the various dialects of Middle English, i.e. of a language very different from our own in spelling and sound, full of words that are now obsolete, and of others which have completely changed their form and meaning.

If we take any medieval roll of names, we see almost at a glance that four such individuals as—

John filius SimonWilliam de la MoorRichard le SpicerRobert le Long

exhaust the possibilities of English name-making—i.e. that every surname must be (i) personal, from a sire or ancestor, (ii) local, from place of residence, [Footnote: This is by far the largest class, counting by names, not individuals, and many names for which I give another explanation have also a local origin. Thus, when I say that Ely is Old Fr. Élie, i.e. Elias, I assume that the reader will know without being told that it has an alternative explanation from Ely in Cambridgeshire.] (iii) occupative, from trade or office, (iv) a nickname, from bodily attributes, character, etc.

This can easily be illustrated from any list of names taken at random. The Rugby team chosen to represent the East Midlands against Kent (January 22, 1913) consisted of the following fifteen names: Hancock; Mobbs, Poulton, Hudson, Cook; Watson, Earl; Bull, Muddiman, Collins, Tebbitt, Lacey, Hall, Osborne, Manton. Some of these are simple, but others require a little knowledge for their explanation.



There are seven personal names, and the first of these, Hancock, is rather a problem. This is usually explained as from Flemish Hanke, Johnny, while the origin of the suffix -cock has never been very clearly accounted for (see The suffix –cock, Chapter VI). With Hancock we may compare Hankin. But, while the Flemish derivation is possible for these two names, it will not explain Hanson, which sometimes becomes Hansom (Epithesis And Assimilation, Chapter III). According to Camden, there is evidence that Han was also used as a rimed form of Ran, short for Ranolf and Randolf (cf. Hob from Robert, Hick from Richard), very popular names in the north during the surname period. In Hankin and Hancock this Han would naturally coalesce with the Flemish Hanke....