Surnames as sources in the OED

By Peter McClure

You may also be interested in Peter’s article on English personal names in the OED.

Surnames occur in the OED for two main reasons. Many of them derive from words in Middle English, and may therefore help to fill gaps in the lexical evidence. From the sixteenth century onwards surnames have increasingly been a basis for inventing new words.

Early surnames as lexical evidence

By the end of the twelfth century, adding a surname to someone’s personal name had become a common practice among members of the Anglo-Norman ruling classes. These surnames could allude to the bearer’s place of residence or origin, family relationship (most often patronymic, by reference to the father’s personal name), status or occupation, or nickname. When father and son shared the same surname, it was usually still meaningful, unlike our modern non-denotative hereditary surnames. During the next two centuries the practice spread to most of the English population.

There is a wealth of such material in the medieval records, much of it unexplored. It is not without interpretational problems, particularly because of the lack of defining contexts. The growth of non-denotative hereditary naming, especially during the fourteenth century, also reduces the usefulness of a surname as evidence for the currency of a word. Even so, large numbers of names, especially those denoting occupations, seem to have remained meaningful in many parts of England until about 1400.

The use of early surname forms in tracing word history is one of the features of the new version of the OED. It was pioneered in a rough and ready way by the Middle English Dictionary (MED), from whose archive much of the onomastic data has been drawn. The consequences can be seen in many antedatings in entries for the revised OED, such as mould-maker, where the first quotation, Gilbertus le moldemaker (1337) antedates what was previously the OED’s only quotation, mould-maker (1780), by more than 400 years.

Manx and milksop
The surname of Gilbertus le Manske (1253-4) occurs over 400 years before the first literary example (1688) for Manx, ‘a native or inhabitant of the Isle of Man’, while that of Rogerus Milksoppe (1231) is a good 150 years earlier than the first literary quotation (from Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale) in the entry for milksop.

Middle English surnames can also fill gaps in the literary record. For plot n. ‘a piece of land’, the unrevised OED had no recorded examples between the Old English period and 1463. The revised entry quotes Henry de Laplot (1246), John atte Plotte (c1280), and Henry ate Plotte (1317), where de la is an Anglo-Norman scribal substitution for the Middle English at(t)e ‘at the’.

It is surprising how many ordinary words are not recorded in literature before the era of the printed book. While the first quotation in OED’s currently unrevised entry for bilberry, for example, is dated 1584, the Nottingham Borough Court Roll offers evidence of one ‘Adam Bilberylyp’ for 1335. Similarly the OED’s first attestations of bullfinch (1570) and charwoman (1596, both currently unrevised) are antedated by the surnames of Ralph Buluinch (1218) and Alice Charwoman (1379, both in MED), while squib—‘a kind of firework’—(1534 in the unrevised entry) seems to be recorded in the nickname of John Squibbe, a resident of the New Forest in 1300.

The infamous F-word ‘to have sexual intercourse’ is first recorded in the sixteenth century, but as the revised OED entry fuck v. shows, it can be found with the probable underlying sense ‘to strike’ in surnames from the thirteenth century such as Wyndfuk (1287). This in turn is perhaps an early version of fuckwind ‘strike the wind’ (a dialect word for the kestrel, as is windfucker), Fuckebegger (1287, ‘strike the beggar’), and Fukkebotere (13thc, ‘strike the butter’), perhaps alluding to the butter-monger’s knocking of butter into blocks for sale.

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A note on interpreting Middle English surnames

Self-explaining compounds, such as Moldemaker, and words or phrases of unambiguous form and sense like le Manx, Buluinch, and atte Plotte present us with few difficulties. But the original senses of Middle English surnames are not always so obvious. Since surnames mostly occur without a defining context, ambiguities of form and spelling can create uncertainties about their precise lexical and semantic identity. For this reason the revised OED entries often cite surnames as potential evidence within an etymological note, rather than within the list of quotations.

Examples of etymological ambiguity include:

The surname le Celer (c1200) is cited as a possible antedating of the earliest literary quotations (1474 and a1475) for cellar n. 2 ‘a cellarer’. The etymological note points out that it may alternatively be a variant spelling of the Anglo-Norman etymon of seller n. 2 ‘a saddler’.

Twelfth- and thirteenth-century examples of surnames with French etymons, like pigeon n., may reflect the Anglo-Norman rather than the Middle English word.

Surnames from words can sometimes be hard to distinguish from those from personal names. The surname of John le Renner (1340), which has the definite article, is evidence of the word runner n. 1, but that of Ric. Renner (1319) could alternatively be patronymic, representing a version of the Anglo-Norman personal name Rayner.

Formations with the agent-noun suffixes (i)er and (o)ur are especially prone to ambiguity. The Hampshire surname le Rakyere (1327) is quoted as a possible example of raker n. 1 ‘a street cleaner’ (where the underlying sense is ‘one who rakes something’), but it could alternatively mean ‘one who makes rakes’ or ‘one who lives at a rake—i.e. ‘the mouth of a narrow valley’ or ‘a (steep narrow) path’—in which case it is identical in meaning with the surname atte Rake (see rake n. 2 and 3). The last possibility is a strong candidate because Hampshire was one of a small number of southern counties where surnames of this type (a topographical word + er) were common.

Some uncertainties of interpretation are inevitable but, treated with caution, Middle English surnames can offer a rich supply of additional information about word histories. As revision of the OED progresses, many more antedatings of common vocabulary will no doubt be included from this largely unexplored resource.

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Surnames used as words

Since the late-nineteenth century, common surnames like Jones (first noted in 1879) and combinations of first name and surname, such as the imaginary Tommy Atkins (see Tommy n. 1) and Joe Bloggs  (see Joe n. 2), have taken on the generic role once played by personal names in typifying the ordinary person. However, most surnames have become words through association with particular individuals. The fascination of these words is that they take us back, not so much to the language of the past but to people of the past and the social, cultural, and political worlds they inhabited.

The phrase Hobson’s choice is (surprisingly) nearly 400 years old. First noted in 1660, it alludes to the practice of Tobias Hobson (1545-1637), a puritan mayor of Cambridge, and a carrier-cum-horse-hirer, who earned a national reputation by offering customers either the horse nearest the stable door or nothing. The verb bowdlerize ‘to expurgate words or passages considered indelicate or indecent’ (1836 in OED) refers to the moral Dr Thomas Bowdler, who in 1818 published an expurgated edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Peeler, an old word for a police officer (1817 in OED), comes from the surname of the great reformer Sir Robert Peel, who as Home Secretary founded the Irish constabulary and the London Metropolitan Police Force (1829; see also bobby n. 1). The bloomer (1851), originally a combination of skirt and trousers, was named after an American woman, Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-1894), who started a revolution in women’s clothing when she introduced the wearing of it. It is common for the views and styles of writers and politicians to be captured in adjectives and nouns like Machiavellian (1566 in OED), Dickensian (1881), and Thatcherite (1976), but words from fictional surnames, like Dickens’s Scrooge (1940), are rarer.

The OED contains hundreds of scientific terms derived from British and foreign surnames. Most of them remain in specialized use (see Jordan n. 3—the French mathematician, Marie Ennemond Camille Jordan, 1838–1922—and Dakin, the biochemist, Henry Dakin), but here are a few examples of ones that have transferred into the general vocabulary:

  • Newtonian, describing the theories of Sir Isaac Newton (1642 -1727) was already a word by 1676.
  • the Fahrenheit measurement of temperatures was devised in 1723 by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686-1736), who invented the mercury thermometer.
  • the German and Swedish botanists, Leonhard Fuchs (1501-66) and Anders Dahl (1751-89), are honoured in the plant names fuschia (1753 in OED) and dahlia (1804 in OED), nicely mispronounced in English.
  • pasteurization (1890 in OED) is the method of sterilizing liquids invented by the French chemist, Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)
  • volt (1873) and ampere (1881), shortened to amp n. 1 (1886) were named after two Italian and French physicists, Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) and André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836).

Many words arise from the transference of an inventor’s or industrialist’s surname to a commercial product. The original design of the hansom cab was patented by Joseph Hansom in 1834. John Loudon McAdam’s method of road-making using layers of small broken stones was called macadam (1824 in OED), from which are derived tarmacadam (1882, tar being mixed with the top layer) and the trade-name tarmac (1903). In Mackintosh the product name has become generalized to denote any kind of rainproof coat, whether or not made of the rubberized cloth patented by Charles Macintosh in 1823. Hoover n. and v. has long been used in British English to refer to any make of vacuum cleaner, not exclusively the machine patented by William H. Hoover in 1927. Similarly Tommy-gun (1929), originally a nickname for the (John T.) Thompson sub-machine-gun (1920 in OED), is now used for any make of the weapon. Brand names, even though usable as count nouns, are normally excluded from the OED if they do not have generic uses.

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. as well as surnames, Peter McClure has also written on the uses of forenames in the development of English.
  2. other free articles on the ‘shaping of English’ include Bernadette Paton on loan words for textiles.

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