Surname - onomastics

From Hull AWE
Jump to: navigation, search

In onomastics - the study of proper nouns - one of the central subjects is that of personal names (sometimes called 'anthroponymy'). The study of surnames is one of the two principal subdivisions of this; the other is the study of forenames.

  • Surnames became common in England from the fourteenth century, when it became necessary to distinguish between the number of individuals in a given area who shared the same forename. (The variety of forenames diminished after then.) It would be useful to know whether one meant 'John the Baker', 'John William's-son', 'John [who lived at the] Hall' or 'John White[-haired]' and so on. (Aristocratic and gentle families with needs for legal titles to estates used surnames from the eleventh century.)
  • It is conventionally agreed that surnames in British culture fall into four main groups:
    • Patronymics, which are those derived from a father (maybe many generations ago). In English these are often marked by the suffix -son, as in Johnson ('son of John'); Pat[t]erson ('son of Patrick'); Ericsson/Ericson/Erikson/Eriksson ('son of Eric', commonly Swedish 'son of Erik'); Dixon ('son of Dick, or Richard'). In the UK, similar meanings are carried by the prefixes in Celtic languages Mac- (Scots) and M'c or M' in Irish Gaelic; in Erse also O', as in O'Riley/Reilly/Reel[e]y ('descendant of Raghailleach'); O'Brian/Brien/Briant/Bryan ('descendant of Brian [Boru]); O'Higgins (Ó hUiginn, 'descendant of a Viking'); in Welsh Ab- or Ap-, as in Powell (son of Howell [Hywel]); Pugh ('son of Hugh'); Price/Preece ('son of Reece [Rhys]); Protheroe/Protherough/Prydderch ('son of Roderick [Rhydderch]')
      • Matronymics (mother's name) are rare in European culture (although Icelandic has many names ending in -dottir, 'daughter'). In Iceland this is usually the name of the actual father or mother of the child, not, as in Britain, a more general fanily name.
    • Occupations, where the first bearer of a family's name followed a particular trade, such as Baker, Miller, Smith (the commonest English surname), Bowman (spelled in some families 'Beauman' perhaps from a desire to sound more up-market), Archer, or Fletcher (who made arrows and fitted them with feathers), Clark and Scrivener (a copyist, or scribe). Some occupational surnames can be hard to interpret for most English-speakers: Bouvier, for example, the maiden name of Jackie Kennedy wife of President J. F. Kennedy (1917–1963), is a French surname meaning ox-herd.
    • Place names, where surnames refer to the place of habitation or of origin of the member of the family to have given it its name, such as Hill, Church, Wood and Green; or London, York, Scotland and Holland. Serious onomasticians divide place names onto
      • topographic names, derived from common, mostly natural, features, such as Brook[e][s] or Burns, River[s], Atwood, Bridge, Townend, Hill, Church, Wood, Greenacre, Redhill, Oldcastle, and Green (which may also be a nickname);
      • habitation names, derived from the names already given to settlements, and distinctive natural features (it can be hard to distinguish between a generic topographic name such as green hill and a specific synonym such as the Greenhill suburb of Sheffield - or the .Greenhills suburb of Dublin), such as Redhill, Whitehall, Sutton, Burton, Murray, Drysdale and Scarisbrick.
    • Nicknames, which commemorate some remarkable feature of the founder of the family, such as Broadhead, Short, Bacon, Smellie, Beard, Savage, and King. Any of these may have been used ironically, as 'Little John' in the Robin Hood legend was so called because he was bigger than any of the outlaws.