Sunday, 20 April 2014

Unsuitable Surnames

Talking about place names I am often asked to give my thoughts on the origins of surnames, particularly those derived from place names. A few days ago a lady asked me to define her married name. I could do so but, without giving details of the name, she commented on how unsuitable this was considering both she and her husband had met at the school where they were both teachers. This started me thinking about the teachers at my schools and whether their names were appropriate for their chosen subjects or character.

Beasley – undoubtedly a place name, however unless I know which example it represents it is difficult to know the true origin. Most describe ‘the woodland clearing where bees are found’, ie describing a source of honey. As a primary school teacher he was a generalist so had no specialist subject that I knew off. He was certainly not honey sweet, but may be seen to have had a sting for he had a habit of throwing the chalk to get a pupil’s attention or, if he really didn’t like you, the blackboard eraser. How times have changed.

Chapman – as an English teacher it is probably appropriate to give the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of this name as (i) a man whose business is buying and selling (ii) an itinerant dealer, hawker or peddler (iii) an agent in commercial transaction (iv) a purchaser or customer. I have nothing to add really, save for pointing out these two syllables both refer to a man, and Chapman was female.

Deavin – a name introduced to Britain by the Normans, who initially used it as a nickname. It is ultimately associated to the Latin ‘divinus’ or god-like. A specialist subject of mathematics may be seen as divine or pure by some, yet doesn’t really seem appropriate for a teacher could never negotiate ‘double maths’ without at least one cigarette break.

Drinkwater – originated as a Saxon nickname, but not exactly what it seems. Humour changes over the centuries, things which will have caused our ancestors to proverbially wet themselves leave us cold. This seems to be such a name, for it was used ironically for one who never did (drink water) or perhaps for a landlord or inn-keeper whose ale meant the customer might as well (drink water). A geography teacher and thus includes climate, so perhaps the name can be seen as appropriate in the modern sense, if not in the original sense.

Dyke – an English teacher and certainly a place name or topographical feature. Whilst I can see no connection with the name and the male teacher, the origin of the word and/or feature is of interest. The word began as Old English dic and originally referred to the ditch/dyke feature in its entirety, ie the soil removed to create the dyke also forming the ditch. In the south of England the predominantly Saxon communities brought about the pronunciation ‘ditch’ with the obvious meaning, while the northern Scandinavian pronunciation was harder as ‘dyke’ and came to mean the earthen mound formed by the spoil from the ditch.

Fulton – a clear place name but unless we know which example it is difficult to be certain this is ful tun or ‘the foul or muddy farmstead’. I must admit I never knew what this man’s speciality was, he came as headmaster and I never knew him as anything else. Having said that, and noting he was never the most approachable or likeable of individuals, ‘foul or muddy’ does not seem particularly appropriate.

Harrison – a chemistry teacher whose name means ‘son of Harry or Henry’ and I can see no connection whatsoever.

Henderson – oddly this is the Scottish version of the previous name, here ‘the son of Hendry’ rather than Henry. Further parallels in the sciences, for Mr Henderson taught biology, although maybe here we could see a connection in the form of heredity.

Herlihy – an Irish name beginning as a byname for a feudal overlord. Not at all appropriate as she taught French and nothing else.

Howlett – originally Germanic and ‘the son of Hugo’ but brought to our shores by the Normans and thus ‘the son of Hugh’. Neither work here as this was a daughter who taught Latin.

Jenkins – a British surname, a diminutive of ‘John’. As with the name of Fulton he was also the headmaster and I never knew his chosen subject but, unlike his successor, was an affable and approachable man despite also being a strict disciplinarian.

McGregor – clearly a Scottish surname and one meaning ‘son of Gregory’ (the Christian name means ‘watchful’). This primary school teacher was no son but a daughter, although she was certainly watchful – as I found out to my cost for two consecutive years during which time she loathed me every single day (yes, including weekends and holidays).

Mills – whilst not a miller it does refer to milling and the mill, which require the large grinding stones or querns to grind the corn. This is relevant for the subject was geology.

Preece – depends on the origin and language as to whether this is Welsh ‘the son of Rhys’ or Norman French pris quite literally ‘price’. Neither language nor meaning is appropriate for an English teacher.

Richmond – certainly a place name, unusually for an English place name one of Old French derivation and meaning ‘strong hill’. This definition fits neither the person nor the music teacher.

Saunders – for many years this was said to be from Alexander, yet there have been some surnames traced to Sanderstead in Surrey, a name meaning ‘the sandy homestead’ – no link to a teacher of mathematics.

Shuttleworth – an obvious place name and one meaning ‘the barred enclosure’. No link to any individual and not an art teacher.

Wallbank – a name from a minor topographical feature meaning exactly what it says, a wall with a bank. If this is seen as something from history then it is appropriate for a history teacher.

Young – means exactly what it says, a nickname for ‘the young one’. A teacher of English who was certainly in the last years of his career.

The exercise was really only to look at the origin of a selection of surnames. To choose former teachers was solely to reduce the options to a manageable number (albeit taking the opportunity to have a little dig back at one or two).

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