How We Got Our Christian Names and Surnames

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This article is Chapter 2, of the book ‘Stories That Words Tell Us, by Elizabeth O’Neill, M.A. First published in 1918, this book is now in the public domain. This article is reprinted by permission from the original book.

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We can learn some interesting stories from the history of our own names. Most people nowadays have one or more Christian names and a surname, but this was not always the case.
Every Christian from the earliest days of Christianity must have had a Christian name given to him at baptism. And before the days of Christianity every man, woman, or child must have had some name.

But the practice of giving surnames grew up only very gradually in the countries of Europe. At first only a few royal or noble families had sur-names, or “super” names; but gradually, as the populations of the different countries became larger, it became necessary for people to have surnames, so as to distinguish those with the same Christian names from each other.

In these days children are generally given for their Christian names family names, or names which their parents think beautiful or suitable. (Often the children afterwards do not like their own names at all.)

The Christian names of the children of European countries come to us from many different languages. Perhaps the greatest number come to us from the Hebrew, because these Jewish names are, of course, found in great numbers in the Bible.

The conversion of the countries of Europe to Christianity united them in their ways of thinking and believing, and they all honoured the saints.

The names of the early saints, whether they were from the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Celtic, Teutonic, or Slavonic, were soon spread throughout all the countries of Europe, so that now French, German, English, Italian, Spanish names, and those of the other European countries, are for the most part the same, only spelt and pronounced a little differently in the different countries.

The English William is Guillaume in French, Wilhelm in German, and so on. John is Jean in French, Johann in German, and so on, with many other names.

But in early times people got their names in a much more interesting way.

Sometimes something which seemed peculiar about a little new-born baby would suggest a name.

Esau was called by this name, which is only the Hebrew word for “hairy,” because he was already covered by the thick growth of hair on his body which made him so different from Jacob.

The old Roman names Flavius and Fulvius merely meant “yellow,” and the French name Blanche, “fair,” or “white.”

Sometimes the fond parents would give the child a name describing some quality which they hoped the child would possess when it grew up. The Hebrew name David means “beloved.”

The name Joseph was given by Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob, to the baby who came to her after long waiting. Joseph means “addition,” and Rachel chose this name because she hoped another child would yet be added to her family. She afterwards had Benjamin, the best beloved of all Jacob’s sons, and then she died.

The name Joseph did not become common in Europe till after the Reformation, when the Catholic Church appointed a feast day for St. Joseph, the spouse of the Blessed Virgin. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Emperor Leopold christened his son Joseph, and this, and the fact that Napoleon’s first wife was named Josephine, made these two names as a boy’s and a girl’s name very popular.

We have both Joseph and Josephine in English, and the French have Fifine and Finette as well as Josephine, for which these are pet names. In Italy, too, Joseph, or Giuseppe, is a common name, and Peppo, or Beppo, are short names for it. These pet names seem very strange when we remember Rachel’s solemn choosing of the name for the first Joseph of all.

Sometimes the early nations called their children by the names of animals.

The beautiful old Hebrew name Deborah, which became also an old-fashioned English name, means “bee.”
In several languages the word for wolf was given as a personal name. The Greek Lycos, the Latin Lupus, the Teutonic Ulf, from which came the Latin Ulphilas and the Slavonic Vuk, all mean “wolf.” The wolf was the most common and the most treacherous of all the wild animals against which early peoples had to fight, and this, perhaps, accounts for the common use of its name. People were so impressed by its qualities that they thought its name worthy to give to their sons, who, perhaps, they hoped would possess some of its better qualities when they grew up.

Sometimes early names were taken from the names of precious stones, as Margarite, a Greek name meaning “pearl,” and which is the origin of all the Margarets, Marguerites, etc., to be found in nearly all the languages of Europe.

Among all early peoples many names were religious, like the Hebrew Ishmael, or “heard by God;” Elizabeth, or the “oath of God;” John, or the “grace of the Lord.” The Romans had the name Jovianus, which meant “belonging to Jupiter,” who was the chief of the gods in whom the Romans believed.

In some languages names, especially of women, are taken from flowers, like the Greek Rhode, or “rose,” the English Rose, and Lily or Lilian, and the Scotch Lilias.

A great many of the Hebrew names especially come from words meaning sorrow or trouble. They were first given to children born in times of sorrow. Thus we have Jabez, which means “sorrow;” Ichabod, or “the glory is departed;” Mary, “bitter.”

The Jews, as we can see from the Bible, suffered the greatest misfortunes, and their writers knew how to tell of it in words. The Celtic nations, like the Irish, have the same gift, and we get many old Celtic names with these same sad meanings. Thus Una means “famine;” Ita, “thirsty.”

The Greek and Roman names were never sad like these. Some old Greek names became Christian names when people who were called by them became Christian in the first days of the Church.

There are several names from the Greek word angelos. This meant in Greek merely a messenger, but it began to be used by the early Christian writers both in Latin and Greek to mean a messenger from heaven, or an angel. The Greeks gave it first as a surname, and then as a Christian name. In the thirteenth century there was a St. Angelo in Italy, and from the honour paid to him the name spread, chiefly as a girl’s name, to the other countries of Europe, giving the English Angelina and Angelica, the French Angelique, and the German Engel.

Besides this general name of angel, the name of Michael, the archangel, and Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation, became favourite names among Eastern Christians.

The reason Michael was such a favourite was that the great Emperor Constantine dedicated a church to St. Michael in Constantinople. The name is so much used in Russia that it is quite common to speak of a Russian peasant as a “Michael,” just as people rather vulgarly speak of an Irish peasant as a “Paddy.” Michael can hardly be called an English name, but it is almost as common in Ireland as Patrick, which, of course, is used in honour of Ireland’s patron saint. Gabriel is a common name in Italy, as is also another angel’s name, Raphael. Gabriel is used as a girl’s name in France—Gabrielle.

No Christian would think of using the name of God as a personal name; but Theos, the Greek word for God, was sometimes so used by the Greeks. A Greek name formed from this, Theophilos, or “beloved by the gods,” became a Christian name, and the name of one of the early saints.

The name Christ, or “anointed,” was the word which the Greek Christians (who translated the Gospels into the Greek of their time) used for the Messiah. From this word came the name Christian, and from it Christina. One of the early martyrs, a virgin of noble Roman birth, who died for her religion, was St. Christina. In Denmark the name became a man’s name, Christiern.
Another English name which is like Christina is Christabel. The great poet Coleridge in the nineteenth century wrote the beginning of a beautiful poem called “Christabel.” The name was not very common before this, and was not heard of until the sixteenth century, but it is fairly common now.

Another favourite Christian name from the name of Christ is Christopher, which means the bearer or carrier of Christ, and we are told in a legend how St. Christopher got this name.

He had chosen for his work to carry people across a stream which had no bridge over it. One day a little boy suddenly appeared, and asked him to carry him across. The kind saint did so, and found, as he got farther into the stream, that the child grew heavier and heavier. When the saint put him down on the other side he saw the figure of the man Christ before him, and fell down and adored Him. Ever afterwards he was known as Christopher, or the “Christ-bearer.”

Another Christian name which comes from a Greek word is Peter.

Petros is the Greek word for “stone,” and Petra for “rock.” The name Peter became a favourite in honour of St. Peter, whose name was first Simon, but who was called Peter because of the words our Lord said to him: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”

When the barbarian tribes, such as the English and Franks, broke into the lands of the Roman Empire and settled there, afterwards being converted to Christianity, they chose a good many Latin words as names.

In France names made from the Latin word amo (“I love”) were quite common. We hear of Amabilis (“lovable”), Amadeus (“loving God”), Amandus, which has now become a surname in France as St. Amand. In England, Amabilis became Amabel, which is not a very common name now, but from which we have Mabel. Amy was first used in England after the Norman Conquest, and comes from the French Amata, or Aimée, which means “beloved.”

Another Latin word of the same kind which gave us some Christian names was Beo (“I bless”). From part of this verb, Beatus (“blessed”), there was an old English name, Beata, but no girl or woman seems to have been called by it since the seventeenth century.

Beatrix and Beatrice also come from this. The name Benedict, which sometimes became in English Bennet, came from another word like this, Benignus (“kind”). Boniface, from the Latin Bonifacius (“doer of good deeds”), was a favourite name in the early Church, and the name of a great English saint; but it is not used in England now, though there is still the Italian name, Bonifazio, which comes from the same word.

Both Christian names and surnames have been taken from the Latin Dies Natalis, or “Birthday of our Lord.”
The French word for Christmas, Noël, comes from this, and, as well as Natalie, is used as a Christian name. Noël is found, too, both as a Christian name and surname in England. At one time English babies were sometimes christened Christmas, but this is never used as a Christian name now, though a few families have it as a surname.

Perhaps the most peculiar Christian names that have ever been were the long names which some of the English Puritans gave their children in the seventeenth century. Often they gave them whole texts of Scripture as names, so that at least one small boy was called “Bind their nobles in chains and their kings in fetters of iron.” Let us hope his relatives soon found some other name to call him “for short.”

Everybody has heard of the famous Cromwellian Parliament, which would do nothing but talk, and which was called the “Barebones Parliament,” after one of its members, who not only bore this peculiar surname, but was also blessed with the “Christian” name of Praise-God. Cromwell grew impatient at last, and Praise-God Barebones and the other talkers suddenly found Parliament dissolved. These names were not, as a rule, handed on from father to son, and soon died out, though in America even to-day we get Christian names somewhat similar, but at least shorter—names like Willing.

It is often easier to see how we got our Christian names than how we got our surnames.

As we have seen, there was a time when early peoples had only first names. The Romans had surnames, or cognomina, but the barbarians who won Europe from them had not.

In England surnames were not used until nearly a hundred years after the Norman Conquest, and then only by kings and nobles. The common people in England had, however, nearly all got them by the fourteenth century; but in Scotland many people were still without surnames in the time of James I., and even those who had them could easily change one for another. Once a man got a surname it was handed on to all his children, as surnames are to-day.

It is interesting to see in how many different ways people got their surnames. Sometimes this is easy, but it is more difficult in other cases.

The first surnames in England were those which the Norman nobles who came over at the Conquest handed on from father to son. These people generally took the name of the place from which they had come in Normandy. In this way names like Robert de Courcy (“Robert of Courcy”) came in; and many of these names, which are considered very aristocratic, still remain.

We have de Corbet, de Beauchamp, de Colevilles, and so on. Sometimes the de has been dropped. Sometimes, again, people took their names in the same way from places in England.

We find in old writings names like Adam de Kent, Robert de Wiltshire, etc. Here, again, the prefix has been dropped, and the place-name has been kept as a surname. Kent is quite a well-known surname, as also are Derby, Buxton, and many other names of English places.

The Normans introduced another kind of name, which became very common too. They were a lively people, like the modern French, and were very fond of giving nicknames, especially names referring to people’s personal appearance.

We get the best examples of this in the nicknames applied to the Norman kings. We have William Rufus, or “the Red;” Richard Cœur-de-Lion, or “Lion-Hearted;” Henry Beauclerc, or “the Scholar.”

These names of kings were not handed down in their families. But in ordinary families it was quite natural that a nickname applied to the father should become a surname.

It is from such nicknames that we get surnames like White, Black, Long, Young, Short, and so on.

All these are, of course, well-known surnames to-day, and though many men named Long may be small, and many named Short may be tall, we may guess that this was not the case with some far-off ancestor. Sometimes man was added to these adjectives, and we get names like Longman, Oldman, etc.

Sometimes these names were used in the French of the Normans, and we get two quite different surnames, though they really in the first place had the same meaning.

Thus we have Curt for Short, and the quite well-known surname Petit, which would be Short or Little in English. The name Goodheart was Bun-Couer in Norman-French, and from this came Bunker, which, if we knew nothing of its history, would not seem to mean Goodheart at all.

So the name Tait came from Tête, or Head; and we may guess that the first ancestor of the numerous people with this name had something remarkable about their heads. The name Goodfellow is really just the same as Bonfellow.

The surname Thin has the same meaning as Meagre, from which the common name Meager comes.

Names like Russell (from the old word rouselle, or “red”), Brown, Morell (“tan”), Dun (“dull grey”), all came from nicknames referring to people’s complexions. Reed and Reid come from the old word rede, or “red.” We still have the names Copperbeard, Greybeard, and Blackbeard.

Sometimes names were given from some peculiarity of clothing. Scarlet, an old English name, probably came from the colour of the clothing of the people who were first called by it—scarlet, like all bright colours, being very much liked in the Middle Ages.

So we hear of the name Curtmantle, or “short cloak,” and Curthose, which was later changed to Shorthose, which is still a well-known name in Derbyshire.

The names Woolward and Woolard come from the old word woolard, which meant wearing wool without any linen clothing underneath. This was often done by pilgrims and others who wished to do penance for their sins.

Many surnames have come down from nicknames given to people because of their good or bad qualities.

This is the origin of names like Wise, Gay, Hardy, Friend, Truman, Makepeace, Sweet, etc. The people who have these names may well believe that the first of their ancestors who bore them was of a gentle and amiable disposition.

Names like Proud, Proudfoot, Proudman, Paillard (French for “lie-a-bed”) show that the first people who had them were not so well liked, and were considered proud or lazy.

Another way of giving nicknames to people because of something noticeable in their character or appearance was to give them the name of some animal having this quality.

The well-known name of Oliphant comes from elephant, and was probably first given to some one very large, and perhaps a little ungraceful. Bullock as a surname probably had the same sort of origin.

The names Falcon, Hawk, Buzzard, must have been first given to people whose friends and neighbours saw some resemblance to the quickness or fierceness or sureness or some other quality of these birds in them.

The names Jay, Peacock, and Parrott point to showiness and pride and empty talkativeness.

A very great number of surnames are really only old Christian names either with or without an ending added to them.

A very common form of surname is a Christian name with son added to it. The first man who handed on the name Wilson (or Willson, as it is still sometimes spelt) was himself the “son of Will.” Any one can think of many names of this kind—Williamson, Davidson, Adamson, etc.

Sometimes the founder of a family had taken his name from his mother. This was the origin of names like Margerison (“Marjorie’s son”) and Alison (“Alice’s son”). This was a very common way of inventing surnames.

The Norman Fitz meant “son of,” and the numerous names beginning with Fitz have this origin. Fitzpatrick originally meant the “son of Patrick,” Fitzstephen the “son of Stephen,” and so on.
The Irish prefix O’ has the same meaning. The ancestor of all the O’Neills was himself the son of Neill.

The Scandinavian Nillson is really the same name, though it sounds so different. The Scotch Mac has the same meaning, and so have the Welsh words map, mab, ap, and ab.

One very interesting way of making surnames was to take them from the trade or occupation of the founder of the family. Perhaps the commonest of English surnames is Smith. And the word for Smith is the commonest surname in almost every country of Europe. In France we have Favier.

The reason for this is easy to see. The smith, or man who made iron and other metals into plough-shares and swords, was one of the most important of all the workers in the early days when surnames were being made.

There were many smiths, and John the Smith and Tom the Smith easily became John Smith and Tom Smith, and thus had a surname to pass on to their families.

As time went on there came to be many different kinds of smiths. There was the smith who worked in gold, and was called a “goldsmith,” from which we get the well-known surname Goldsmith, the name of a great English writer. Then there was the “nail smith,” from which trade came the name Nasmith; the “sickle smith,” from which came Sixsmith; the “shear smith,” which gave us Shearsmith—and so on.

In mediæval England the manufacture of cloth from the wool of the great flocks of sheep which fed on the pasture lands of the monasteries and other great houses, was the chief industry of the nation.

This trade of wool-weaving has given us many surnames, such as Woolmer, Woolman, Carder, Kempster, Towser, Weaver, Webster, etc. Some of these referred to the general work of wool-weaving and others to special branches.

Any child can think in a moment of several names which have come in this way from trades.We have Taylor for a beginning.

But many surnames which are taken from the names of trades come from Old English words which are now seldom or never used.

Chapman, a common name now, was the Old English word for a general dealer. Spicer was the old name for grocer, and is now a fairly common surname.

The well-known name of Fletcher comes from the almost forgotten word flechier, “an arrowmaker.” Coltman came from the name of the man who had charge of the colts. Runciman was the man who had charge of horses too, and comes from another Old English word, rouncy, “a horse.”

The Parkers are descended from a park-keeper who used to be called by that name.

The Horners come from a maker of horns; the Crockers and Crokers from a “croker,” or “crocker,” a maker of pottery.

Hogarth comes from “hoggart,” a hog-herd; Calvert from “calf-herd;” and Seward from “sow-herd.” Lambert sometimes came from “lamb-herd.”

But we cannot always be sure of the origin of even the commonest surnames.

For instance, every person named Smith is not descended from a smith, for the name also comes from the old word smoth, or “smooth,” and this is the origin of Smith in Smithfield.

A great many English surnames were taken from places. Street, Ford, Lane, Brooke, Styles, are names of this kind. Sometimes they were prefixed by the Old English atte (“at”) or the French de la (“of the”), but these prefixes have been dropped since. Geoffrey atte Style was the Geoffrey who lived near the stile—and so on.

Nearly all the names ending in hurst and shaw are taken from places. A hurst was a wood or grove; a shaw was a shelter for fowls and animals. The chief thing about a man who got the surname of Henshaw or Ramshaw was probably that he owned, or had the care of, such a shelter for hens or rams.

Names ending in ley generally came into existence in the same way, a ley being also a shelter for domestic animals. So we have Horsley, Cowley, Hartley, Shipley (from “sheep”). Sometimes the name was taken from the kind of trees which closed such a shelter in, names like Ashley, Elmsley, Oakley, Lindley, etc.

Surnames as well as Christian names were often taken from the names of saints. From such a beautiful name as St. Hugh the Normans had Hugon, and from this we get the rather commonplace names of Huggins, Hutchins, Hutchinson, and several others.

So St. Clair is still a surname, though often changed into Sinclair. St. Gilbert is responsible for the names Gibbs, Gibbons, Gibson, etc.

Sometimes in Scotland people were given, as Christian names, names meaning servant of Christ, or some saint. The word for servant was giollo, or giolla.

It was in this way that names like Gilchrist, Gilpatrick, first came to be used. They were at first Christian names, and then came to be passed on as surnames. So Gillespie means “servant of the bishop.”

Some surnames, though they seem quite English now, show that the first member of the family to bear the name was looked upon as a foreigner.

Such names are Newman, Newcome, Cumming (from cumma, “a stranger”). Sometimes the nationality to which the stranger belonged is shown by the name.

The ancestors of the people called Fleming, for instance, must have come from Flanders, as so many did in the Middle Ages. The Brabazons must have come from Brabant.

Perhaps the most peculiar origin of all belongs to some surnames which seem to have come from oaths or exclamations.

The fairly common names Pardoe, Pardie, etc., come from the older name Pardieu, or “By God,” a solemn form of oath.

We have, too, the English form in the name Bigod. Names like Rummiley come from the old cry of sailors, Rummylow, which they used as sailors use “Heave-ho” now.

But many chapters could be written on the history of names. This chapter shows only some of the ways in which we got our Christian names and surnames.

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