Why Mr Bugg's idea backfired

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Last week, I was spinning the theory that James Naughtie insisted on the Scottish pronunciation of Nochtie in order to avoid being called Naughty, and there is a fair chance that I am right.

I mean, who would want to be called Naughty? Is it likely anyone was ever called Naughty? And if he were, wouldn't he want to change it to Naughtie? But would anyone have been called Naughty? Is it possible? Well, yes, it is.

If you go back to a book on names like Surnames by the late Ernest Weekley, you find the theory put forward that all names fall into four categories. One is the kind of name based on an occupation, such as Cooper, Thresher, Thatcher, Clark, Taylor or Brewer. A second is the kind of name derived from place of origin, like York, London or, indeed, Kington. A third is the patronym, based on father's name, such as Thomson, Dixon, O'Brien, Macdonald, Bowen, etc. No room for value judgements there.

But there is a fourth category that admits of insulting surnames, because it is based on personal description. Some names based on personal description are complimentary. It is nice to be called Strong, or Sweet, or Rich, or Bold. Some names are not so nice. It is not so great to be called Long, Short, Round, Thin, or Ambler, which Weekley claims is an insult offered to a slow walker.

Nor is it very nice to be called Crookshank, meaning "bent leg", or, indeed, to be called Fatfoot. There is, as far as I know, no such name as Fatfoot, but Weekley points out that the Greek name Oedipus is in fact merely Greek for Fatfoot or "Swellfoot", which I think adds a pleasantly prosaic note to the whole business of being in love with your Mum.

People prefer complimentary surnames to pejorative ones. If you look up the page in your local phone book that has names beginning Sm-, you will find many people called Smart but very few called Smellie. Personally, I am a little taken aback that there are any people at all called Smellie, most of whom must have been tempted to change it to something adjacent, such as Smillie or Smiley. After all, John Cleese's immediate forebears in Weston-Super-Mare were called Cheese until they decided to change their name to Cleese, and even now if you look in the Bristol and Weston phone book you will still find one or two Cheeses down Weston way.

The most extreme example of this desire for improvement was passed on to me years ago by Alan Coren, who told me that in Victorian times there was a man called Bugg (Josiah Bugg, I think), who so hated his name that he changed it by deed poll. In fact, he changed it so radically that from being Mr Bugg he became Mr Norfolk-Howard, which was almost like buying a title.

However, news of this got about Victorian England, and everyone thought that the instant social mobility was so funny that they decided to use the name Norfolk-Howard as a slang word for bug or beetle. It caught on, which meant that Mr Norfolk-Howard found that his name still meant bug.

Some insulting names have lost their meaning over the years. I had not known till I dipped into Weekley again that the two Scottish names Cameron and Campbell are Highland insults ("crooked nose" and "wry mouth"), or that Kennedy comes from an Irish phrase meaning "ugly head".

Oddly, some names which were originally neutral or even flattering have turned into insults by accident. Blunt came from a word connected with "blond" and originally meant "fair-headed". Bragg meant "brave", Moody meant "valiant" and Stout was nothing to do with girth but meant "proud", cognate with the German word stolz. And anyone called Pratt may be comforted to know that it comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for "cunning".

But we shall probably never know to what depths names sank in those days of surname-forming. Ernest Weekley says that a lot of names were so vile that they have not survived. "Of the many hundreds of that type I have collected, only a small proportion seem to have survived, though probably many more live on in disguise. Many of the medieval examples are of quite unquotable coarseness, and point either to the great brutality or the great navety of our ancestors."

Or, of course, to the great prudery of the times in which Dr Weekley wrote his books, just after the turn of the century. It took someone like DH Lawrence to come along and quote the unquotable coarseness. Sadly for Weekley, DH Lawrence also came along and took Weekley's wife away. Yes, Ernest Weekley, who dug so deep into the origin of surnames, was married to the very same Frieda who ran away with Lawrence and left Weekley to get on with things in peace and quiet (or, in German, Friede).