Terence Blacker: The secrets in your surname

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

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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

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