Terence Blacker: The secrets in your surname

They reveal family origins, as well as insights into one's life and character

Share
Related Topics

There are moments in one's life when a powerful curiosity about family origins begins to niggle. An urge to talk to older relations about interestingly eccentric great aunts is one symptom of this malaise; researching one's family tree on the internet is another.

Ancestors rarely live up to expectations. When Michael Parkinson was dropped from the genealogical celebrity show Who Do You Think You Are? because the Parkinsons were simply too dull, his experience reflected a wider reality. I am said to be descended from a ninth-century king of Denmark, belong to the family of one of Napoleon's mistresses, and be a distant cousin of Stephen Fry – but then it turns out so is virtually everyone else.

Surnames are different. They not only reveal family origins but quite possibly contain insights into one's own life and character. Recognising how helpful names are as a key to self-knowledge, Professor Richard Coates of the University of the West of England launched a project researching the surnames of Britain this week.

Can the origin of a family surname inform the way we behave today? Perhaps some familiar names can provide a few clues.

Cowell. In Anglo-Saxon times, a cowell was a tool for picking up animal droppings, particularly those of cattle. Because cowpats were then highly valued in dried form, being used as insulation, cushions and an early form of Frisbee, those who collected them and sold them, cowellers or cowells, gained great respect for making money out of muck and were often revered local figures.

Darling. It is wrongly assumed that the family name darling was earned by court favourites who were easy with their sexual favours. In fact, the name originates from the old Wiltshire verb "to darl", meaning to render a person unconscious by means of speaking in a tedious, dull manner for a long time. Darlings were much in demand among residents of Salisbury and other major towns who had difficulty in sleeping.

Windsor. During the reign of Henry II, a pejorative term "wind sir" was used to describe particularly useless, vacillating members of the aristocracy. (By contrast, the name Winslet derives from the Viking "vintslett" or "wind-slayer", denoting a powerful and attractive warrior).

Rooney. Surprisingly, the name Rooney, or Ru Ni to give it the correct spelling, originates in Mongolia where it denoted a strong but less than talkative stone-carver. The name is thought to have transferred to English during the 19th century.

Widdecombe. As indicated in the old folk song Widdecombe Fair ("The maid with eyes so fair and fay/ Took me twa to Widdecome Fair, wehay!"), the word "widdecombe" was a euphemism for physical delight. The highest compliment that could be paid to a woman of mature years was that she was "wise, wide and widdecombe".

Clarkson. In 15th-century Basildon, the town clerk employed his son to make public pronouncements on his behalf at every possible opportunity. Thereafter a self-important loudmouth who liked to claim rather more attention than he deserved became known as a clerkson, or clarkson.

Osborne (or Osbourne). Literally "dog-skinner" in the local Worcestershire dialect, an Osborne was someone who did unpleasant things on behalf of the community. As a result, he became something of an oddity, a social outsider. Despite their apparent and superficial differences, recent osbornes – George, Ozzy and John – share this common heritage.

terblacker@aol.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress. Arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?