Good Questions: Significant surnames

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Is it statistically significant that a person whose surname is connected with a type of work will get work of that nature? Is there an underlying psychological drive? (Nicholas E Gough of Malmesbury, Wilts.)

The letters column of this paper recently had a continuing correspondence on the subject of people whose names reflect their professions, and there have been several collections in the past, but we know of no serious research into whether these coincidences have any statistical significance.

The psychologist Eric Berne believed that names have a profound influence on a person's development. In What Do You Say After You Say Hello, (subtitled 'The Psychology of Human Destiny') he develops 'Script Theory', of which the basic idea is that we all have individual scripts, formed at an early age, by which we try to run our lives.

'There is no doubt,' he says, 'that in many cases given names, short names, and nicknames, or whatever is bestowed or inflicted on the innocent newborn, is a clear indication of where his parents want him to go; and he will have to struggle against such influences if he is to break away from the obvious hint.' After discussing how a name can become 'scripty' in four ways: purposeful, accidental, inadvertant or inevitable, Berne concludes: 'It is no wonder that H Head and W R Brain both became well-known neurologists'.

Yet it is always tempting to infer causality from coincidence. Sadly, the cult of coincidence is firmly established in urban myth; nobody collects non-coincidences. So perhaps we should make a start. There are over 100 people named Plummer in the London telephone directory, including a Reverend Plummer, yet in the Central London Yellow Pages, under 'Plumbers', no one of that name appears.

Equally, there are well over 200 Farmers in London, most of whom presumably aren't; and while we have been unable to trace any bishops, shepherds or criminals named Crook, Yellow Pages can offer us a funeral director and a chartered accountant of that name.

Please could you find the origin of 'digs', as in lodging houses. A friend and I were discussing it and the only idea we had was from dug-outs, during the First World War. Has it a more comfortable derivation?

The expression has a curious history, having started here, been exported to America where its meaning changed, and then brought back to England, where it became established as it faded back in the USA. That journey explains why Brewer describes it as 'imported from California and its gold diggings', while Webster's New World Dictionary insists on its being 'colloquial - chiefly British'.

'Diggings', relating to archaeological digs, is a term that dates back hundreds of years. Its extension to apply to living quarters near the dig dates back to the Californian gold rush, with the earliest citation in 1838. Its first recorded British use come from Stage magazine in 1893, where it referred to actor's lodgings. As the gold rush ended, the word lapsed from American use but, with its new extended meaning, survived in Britain.

I would like to know why, and on what principles, printers and stonemasons until the beginning of the 19th century printed and carved the letter 's' in two forms - the little 's' as we know it and the long curly 's' like an 'f' without the crossbar. In Worcester Cathedral, the stonemasons put a horizontal half-bar on the long 's', but in Durham Cathedral they put in an oblique one. (John Gibson of Wichenford, Worcs.)

Although there are more English words beginning with the letter 's' than any other, the most confusing thing is that the 'modern' form of 's' is in fact older than the outmoded, elongated version. The standard 's' was established by the ancient Romans, with the elongated f-like 's' first appearing only at the end of the Roman empire.

By the 11th century, both forms were in common use, with the long 's' used anywhere in a word and the short 's' used at the end. To add to the confusion, it was around the same time that the letter 'c' began to acquire an 's' sound before certain vowels. The Italians, whose words rarely end in 's', began to use both forms of the letter indiscriminately and when, during the Renaissance, their scribes took a dominant role in book production, the long 's' began to fall out of favour.

The difference between the long 's' with horizontal, oblique or no half-bar at all seems to have no more significance than the choice of one typeface in preference to another.

Going even further back, the letter 's' is a direct descendant of the Greek sigma, which in turn comes from a Phoenician letter called 'shin'. The Phoenicians had three letters for various 's' sounds: samech, a sharp 's'; tsade, a 'ts' sound; and shin, first a 'sh' but used by the Greeks for a basic 's'.

Source: The Alphabet Abecedarium, by Richard A Firmage.

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