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To review the sources of a people’s nomenclature is to review that people’s history. When we remember that there is nothing without a name, and that every name that is named, whether it be of a man, or man’s work, or man’s heritage of earth, came not by chance, or accident so called, but was given out of some nation’s spoken language to denote some characteristic that language expressed, we can readily imagine how important is the drift of each—what a record must each contain. We cannot but see that could we only grasp their true meaning, could we but take away the doubtful crust in which they are oftentimes imbedded, then should we be speaking out of the very mouth of history itself. For names are enduring—generations come and go; and passing on with each, they become all but everlasting. Nomenclature, in fact, is a well in which, as the fresh water is flowing perennially through, there is left a sediment that clings to the bottom. This silty deposit may accumulate—nay, it may threaten to choke it up, still the well is there. It but requires to be exhumed, and we shall behold it in all its simple proportions once more.
And thus it is with names. They betoken life and matter that is ever coming and going, ever undergoing change and decay. But through it all they abide. The accretions of passing years may fasten upon them—the varied accidents of lapsing time may attach to them—they may become all but undistinguishable, but only let us get rid of that which cleaves to them, and we lay bare in all its naked simplicity the character and the lineaments of a long gone era. Look for instance at our place-names. Apart from their various corruptions they are as they were first entitled. So far as the nomenclature of our country itself is concerned, England is at this present day as rude, as untutored, and as heathen as at the moment those Norwegian and Germanic hordes grounded their keels upon our shores, for all our place-names, saving where the Celt still lingers, are their bequest, and bear upon them the impress of their life and its surroundings. These are they which tell us such strange truths—how far they had made progress as yet in the arts of life, what were the habits they practised, what was the religion they believed in. And as with place-names, so with our own. As records of past history they are equally truthful, equally suggestive. One important difference, however, there is—Place-names, as I have just hinted, once given are all but imperishable. Mountains, valleys, and streams still, as a rule, retain the names first given them. Personal names, those simple individual names which we find in use throughout all pre-Norman history, were but for the life of him to whom they were attached. They died with him, nor passed on saving accidentally. Nor were those second designations, those which we call
surnames as being ‘superadded to Christian names,’ at first of any lasting character. It was not till the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, or even fourteenth centuries that they became hereditary—that is, in any true sense stationary.
Before, however, we enter into the history of these, and with regard to England that is the purpose of this book, it will be well to take a brief survey of the actual state of human nomenclature in preceding times. Surnames, we must remember, were the simple result of necessity when population, hitherto isolated and small, became so increased as to necessitate further particularity than the merely personal one could supply. One name, therefore, was all that was needed in early times, and one name, as a general rule, is all that we find. The Bible is, of course, our first record of these—‘Adam,’ ‘Eve,’ ‘Joseph,’ ‘Barak,’ ‘David,’ ‘Isaiah,’ all were simple, single, and expressive titles, given in most cases from some circumstances attending their creation or birth. When the Israelites were crowded together in the wilderness they were at once involved in difficulties of identification. We cannot imagine to ourselves how such a population as that of Manchester or Birmingham could possibly get on with but single appellations. Of course I do not put this by way of real comparison, for with the Jewish clan or family system this difficulty must have been materially overcome. Still it is no wonder that in the later books of Moses we should find them falling back upon this patronymic as a means of identifying the individual. Thus such expressions as ‘Joshua the son of Nun,’ or ‘Caleb the son of Jephunah,’ or ‘Jair the son of Manasseh,’ are not
unfrequently to be met with. Later on, this necessity was caused by a further circumstance. Certain of these single names became popular over others. ‘John,’ ‘Simon,’ and ‘Judas’ were such. A further distinction, therefore, was necessary. This gave rise to sobriquets of a more diverse character. We find the patronymic still in use, as in ‘Simon Barjonas,’ that is, ‘Simon the son of Jonas;’ but in addition to this, we have also the local element introduced, as in ‘Simon of Cyrene,’ and the descriptive in ‘Simon the Zealot.’ Thus, again, we have ‘Judas Iscariot,’ whatever that may mean, for commentators are divided upon the subject; ‘Judas Barsabas,’ and ‘Judas of Galilee.’ In the meantime the heathen but polished nations of Greece and Rome had been adopting similar means, though the latter was decidedly the first in method. Among the former, such double names as ‘Dionysius the Tyrant,’ ‘Diogenes the Cynic,’ ‘Socrates the son of Sophronicus,’ or ‘Hecatæus of Miletus,’ show the same custom, and the same need. To the Roman, however, belongs, as I have said, the earliest system of nomenclature, a system, perhaps, more careful and precise than any which has followed after. The purely Roman citizen had a threefold name. The first denoted the ‘prænomen,’ and answered to our personal, or baptismal, name. The second was what we may term the clan-name; and the third, the cognomen, corresponded with our present surname. Thus we have such treble appellations as ‘Marcus Tullius Cicero,’ or ‘Aulus Licinius Archeas.’ If a manumitted slave had the citizenship conferred upon him, his single name became his cognomen, and the others preceded it, one generally
being the name of him who was the emancipator. Thus was it of ‘Licinius’ in the last-mentioned instance. With the overthrow of the Western Empire, however, this system was lost, and the barbarians who settled upon its ruins brought back the simple appellative once more. Arminius, their chief hero, was content with that simple title. Alaric, the brave King of the Goths, is only so known. Caractacus and Vortigern, to come nearer home, represented but the same custom.
But we are not without traces of those descriptive epithets which had obtained among the earlier communities of the East. The Venerable Bede, speaking of two missionaries, both of whom bore the name of ‘Hewald,’ says, ‘pro diversâ capellorum specie unus Niger Hewald, alter Albus diceretur;’ that is, in modern parlance, the colour of their hair being different, they came to be called ‘Hewald Black,’ and ‘Hewald White.’ Another Saxon, distinguished for his somewhat huge proportions, and bearing the name of ‘Ethelred,’ was known as ‘Mucel,’ or ‘Great,’ a word still lingering in the Scottish mickle. We may class him, therefore, with our ‘le Grands,’ as we find them inscribed in the Norman rolls, the progenitors of our ‘Grants,’ and ‘Grands,’ or our ‘Biggs,’ as Saxon as himself. Thus again, our later ‘Fairfaxes,’ ‘Lightfoots,’ ‘Heavisides,’ and ‘Slows,’ are but hereditary nicknames like to the earlier ‘Harfagres,’ ‘Harefoots,’ ‘Ironsides,’ and ‘Unreadys,’ which died out, so far as their immediate possessors went, with the ‘Harolds,’ and ‘Edmunds,’ and ‘Ethelreds,’ upon whom they were severally foisted. They were but expressions of popular feeling to individual
persons by means of which that individuality was increased, and, as with every other instance I have mentioned hitherto, passed away with the lives of their owners. No descendant succeeded to the title. The son, in due course of time, got a sobriquet of his own, by which he was familiarly known, but that, too, was but personal and temporary. It was no more hereditary than had been his father’s before him, and even so far as himself was concerned might be again changed according to the humour or caprice of his neighbours and acquaintances. And this went on for several more centuries, only as population increased these sobriquets became but more and more common.
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, a change took place. By a silent and unpremeditated movement over the whole of the more populated and civilized European societies, nomenclature began to assume a solid lasting basis. It was the result, in fact, of an insensibly growing necessity. Population was on the increase, commerce was spreading, and society was fast becoming corporate. With all this arose difficulties of individualization. It was impossible, without some further distinction, to maintain a current identity. Hence what had been but an occasional and irregular custom became a fixed and general practice—the distinguishing sobriquet, not, as I say, of premeditation, but by a silent compact, became part and parcel of a man’s property, and passed on with his other possessions to his direct descendants. This sobriquet had come to be of various kinds. It might be the designation of the property owned, as in
the case of the Norman barons and their feudatory settlements, or it might be some local peculiarity that marked the abode. It might be the designation of the craft the owner followed. It might be the title of the rank or office he held. It might be a patronymic—a name acquired from the personal or Christian name of his father or mother. It might be some characteristic, mental or physical, complimentary or the reverse. Any of these it might be, it mattered not which; but when once it became attached to the possessor and gave him a fixed identity, it clung to him for his life, and eventually passed on to his offspring. Then it was that at length local and personal names came somewhat upon the same level; and as the former, some centuries before, had stereotyped the life of our various Celtic and Slavonic and Teutonic settlements, so now these latter fossilized the character of the era in which they arose; and here we have them, with all the antiquity of their birth upon them, breathing of times and customs and fashions and things that are now wholly passed from our eyes, or are so completely changed as to bear but the faintest resemblance to that which they have been. To analyse some of these names, for all were impossible, is the purpose of the following chapters. I trust that ere I have finished my task, I shall have been able to throw some little light, at least, on the life and habits of our early English forefathers.
The reader will have observed that I have just incidentally alluded to five different classes of names. For the sake of further distinction I will place them formally and under more concise headings:—
1. Baptismal or personal names.
2. Local surnames.
3. Official surnames.
4. Occupative surnames.
5. Sobriquet surnames, or Nicknames.
I need scarcely add that under one of these five divisions will every surname in all the countries of Europe be found.