The link below is to an article that takes a look at where last names come from.
Let me take you for a stroll down the high street of 12th-century Winchester – one of the great cities of medieval England – and introduce you to a few of the locals. Here’s Alberic Coquus, the cook, and over there is Ainulf Parcheminus, the parchment-maker. They are chatting to Luuing Scalarius (he builds ladders). Godric Softebred, who has his shop just down the road, is a baker – but his neighbours giggle behind his back and give his wife pitying glances.
You can’t miss Robert Crassus (“big, fat”), but I would hesitate to introduce you to Alfred Taddebelloc (“Toadbollock”) and you probably won’t want to stand too close to Radulf Scitliure (“shit-liver”, evidently cursed with chronic diarrhoea or some other stomach complaint). And perhaps we should simply cross the street to avoid me having to mention Godwin Clawecuncte (use your imagination) at all.
We know these names – with the intriguing clues they give about the people who carried them – from the two 12th-century surveys of Winchester property collectively known as the Winton Domesday. So, what’s in a medieval name? What can they tell historians about long-forgotten lives and individuals in the past? And why won’t you find anyone with the surname Toadbollock today?
These names don’t work in quite the same way as modern surnames. These (usually non-hereditary) medieval bynames add further detail to personal names, noting where someone was from, what job they did and even what they looked like or how they behaved.
Bynames often reflect physical attributes, such as those of Winchester’s Alestan Hwit (“white”), who probably had a fair complexion, or Alimer Longus (“tall”). You wouldn’t want to see Winchester’s Peter Agnell (“little lamb”) get into a fight with Godwin Bar (“boar”).
Many medieval historians have their own favourite names they’ve discovered during their research: Professor Anthony Bale of Birkbeck, University of London, mentions Tom Dustiberd (“dusty beard”) and the likely somewhat dishevelled Adam Charrecrowe (“scarecrow”), as well as Walter Boltuprith (“bolt-upright”).
Other bynames indicate trades and occupations. Richard Farrier was keeper of the king’s horses at Chester in the summer of 1283. Records show that he purchased cut grass for 20 horses, including that of the queen, and also for ten “great” horses arriving from Caernafon. He bought horseshoes, bridles, long ropes of hemp to make reins, as well as plenty of horse salve.
Other occupational bynames hint at less happy vocations. John Pynchware and his son worked as shoemakers in 15th-century Chester. But with a byname like that, how well did their shoes fit? Professor Matthew Davies of Birkbeck points to an apprentice tailor in London, 1486, named Rowland Lytillskyll. He doesn’t seem to have made it in his chosen career.
Bynames can also tell us about ethnic identities. Several people in 12th-century Winchester were called “Iudeius” – members of what would become the city’s thriving medieval Jewish community. Godwin Francigena, with his English personal name and byname meaning “Frenchman”, reminds us what a cosmopolitan, multicultural European city this was.
But sometimes bynames point to political and social tensions. Dr Adam Chapman, at the Institute for Historical Research, shares the example of the 14th-century Welshman known as Madog Drwgwrthgymro: literally “bad to Welshmen”, but translated by the historian Robert Rees Davies more provocatively as “Saxon-lover” – a smear based on perceived disloyalty and ethnic betrayal.
Another Welshman, William Cragh, features in medieval records as an outlaw –- or freedom fighter, depending on your viewpoint – who rebelled against Norman rule and was hanged, but came back to life (that’s another story. He cuts less of a romantic, heroic figure when we translate his Welsh byname – perhaps “Scabby William” had suffered some kind of disfiguring disease as a child. Still, he was more likely known by his fellow Welshmen by the patronymic “ap Rhys” (“son of Rhys”).
Somewhere in my own ancestry, someone probably worked as a clerk. Adam Chapman’s forebears possibly worked in a shop (“ceap-man” meant merchant, from the Old English “ceapan” meaning to sell or buy). Some bynames just stick around: Delia Smith doesn’t work in a forge, and Mary Beard doesn’t have one. But others, unsurprisingly, don’t outlast their original owners.
We see similar revisions when it comes to less appealing place names: just as William Cragh probably preferred being called William ap Rhys, the place where he was hanged in Swansea was renamed, in the late 19th century, from Gibbet Hill Road to the more estate agent-friendly North Hill Road.
So, why are medieval bynames so useful and engaging? For a start, some of them are hilarious – and they give us a humorous way into a seemingly remote and distant historical past. But, more than that, they offer a sense of connection with a real individual and a characteristic which defined them within their own, contemporary local community.
These medieval names also give us glimpses into something the big chronicles, charters and official history books often don’t tell us much about: ordinary people and their ordinary, colourful lives.
In 2008, Newsweek published an article on then-presidential candidate Barack Obama titled “From Barry to Barack.”
The story explained how Obama’s Kenyan father, Barack Obama Sr., chose Barry as a nickname for himself in 1959 in order “to fit in.” But the younger Barack – who had been called Barry since he was a child – chose to revert to his given name, Barack, in 1980 as a college student coming to terms with his identity.
Newsweek’s story reflects a typical view of name changing: Immigrants in an earlier era changed their names to assimilate, while in our contemporary era of ethnic pride, immigrants and their children are more likely to retain or reclaim ethnic names.
However, my research on name changing suggests a more complicated narrative. For the past 10 years, I’ve studied thousands of name-changing petitions deposited at the New York City Civil Court from 1887 through today.
Those petitions suggest that name changing has changed significantly over time: While it was primarily Jews in the early to mid-20th century who altered their names to avoid discrimination, today it’s a more diverse group of people changing their names for a range of reasons, from qualifying for government benefits to keeping their families unified.
Jews hope to improve their job prospects
From the 1910s through the 1960s, the overwhelming majority of people petitioning to change their names weren’t immigrants seeking to have their names Americanized.
Instead, they were native-born American Jews who faced significant institutional discrimination.
In the 1910s and 1920s, many employers wouldn’t hire Jews, and universities began establishing quotas on Jewish applicants. One way to tell if someone was Jewish was his or her name, so it made sense that Jews would want to get rid of names that “sounded” Jewish.
As Dora Sarietzky, a stenographer and typist, explained in her 1937 petition:
“My name proved to be a great handicap in securing a position. … In order to facilitate securing work, I assumed the name Doris Watson.”
Since most petitioners were native-born Americans, this wasn’t about fitting in. It was a direct response to racism.
The changing face of name changing
While 80 percent of petitioners in 1946 sought to erase their ethnic names and replace them with more generic “American-sounding” ones, only 25 percent of petitioners in 2002 did the same. Meanwhile, few name changers in the past 50 years have actually made a decision like Barack Obama’s: Only about 5 percent of all name change petitions in 2002 sought a name more ethnically identifiable.
So why, in the 21st century, are people feeling compelled to change their names?
The demographics of name change petitioners today – and the reasons that they give – suggest a complicated story of race, class and culture.
Jewish names disappeared in the petitions over the last two decades of the 20th century. At the same time, the numbers of African-American, Asian and Latino petitioners rose dramatically after 2001.
On the one hand, this reflected the changing demographics of the city. But there was also a marked shift in the class of petitioners. While only 1 percent of petitioners in 1946 lived in a neighborhood with a median income below the poverty line, by 2012, 52 percent of petitioners lived in such a neighborhood.
Navigating the bureaucracy
These new petitioners aren’t seeking to improve their educational and job prospects in large numbers, like the Jews of the 1930s and 1940s.
Instead, today’s petitioners seem to be trying to match their names with those of other family members after a divorce, adoption or abandonment. Or they’re looking to fix bureaucratic errors in their records – the misspelled or mistaken names that were long ignored, but have increasingly become major problems in the 21st century.
In the wake of Sept. 11, the nation’s obsession with security translated to an increased anxiety surrounding identity documents. This anxiety seems to have particularly burdened the poor, who now need the names on their birth certificates to match drivers’ licenses and other documents in order to get jobs or government benefits.
Roughly 21 percent of petitioners in 2002 sought to correct errors on their vital documents, while in 1942, only about 4 percent of petitions had been submitted to change a mistake on an identification document.
“When I apply for Medicare premium payment program,” one petitioner explained in 2007, “they denied it because my name doesn’t match my social security card.”
Why change your name if it won’t help?
There’s also another key difference between today and the early 20th century: limited upward mobility.
Even though multiple studies have shown that people with African-American-sounding names are more likely to face job discrimination, poor African Americans in Brooklyn and the Bronx aren’t getting rid of their African-American-sounding names.
Perhaps this is because poor or working class people in 21st-century America have fewer possibilities for upward mobility than there were for Jews in the 1940s working as clerks, salesmen and secretaries.
So even if having an ethnic-sounding name might hinder middle-class African Americans’ ability to find a better job, there’s less of an incentive for poor people of color to change their names.
Racism against Arab-Americans
There is one striking exception, and it demonstrates the powerful role discrimination continues to play in American society.
After Sept. 11, there was a surge of petitions from people with Arabic-sounding names.
Their petitions were achingly similar to those of Jews in the 1940s, though many of these newer petitioners were more open about the hatred they faced:
“Prevailing attitudes and prejudices against persons of Arabic descendancy have been adversely affected as a direct result of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” one petitioner wrote. “Petitioner wishes to change his name to a less demonstratively Muslim/Arabic first name.”
By 2012, however, petitioners with Muslim or Arabic names had stopped changing their names in large numbers. That probably doesn’t have anything to do with a more tolerant society. Instead, in 2009, the New York City Police Department began conducting surveillance into New York’s Muslim and Arab communities using Civil Court name change petitions, sending the message that the act of changing your name might make you as much of a suspect as keeping it.
Although there has been substantial change in the name change petitions over the past 125 years, there’s one lasting lesson: Name changing is not a simple story. It hasn’t moved smoothly from an era in which immigrants simply wanted to fit in, to an era in which diversity is welcome.
Instead, name changing illustrates that racial hatred and suspicion have been a lasting presence in American history, and that intertwined definitions of race and class are hardening – and limiting – the opportunities of people of color.
Have you ever been called somebody else’s name? How often has your own mother forgotten your name? Does she ever cycle through the names of each of your siblings, and perhaps even the family pet, before getting to yours?
Don’t worry, it’s probably not because she loves them more than you.
According to researchers at Duke University, misnaming is a common cognitive slip-up. In fact, it seems to occur most frequently between family members and close friends.
The researchers examined survey data from more than 1,700 participants, who were either undergraduate students or older individuals from the community. Regardless of age, those who had been misnamed reported being misnamed by someone they knew well. Likewise, those who had misnamed someone reported doing so to a familiar person.
Misnaming usually occurs within the same semantic category. So, family members are misnamed with another family member’s name and friends are misnamed with another friend’s name.
Names are also more likely to be confused when they share phonetic similarities. For example, misnaming will potentially occur more often if you have children named Dan and Stan.
Notably, the study found misnaming has little to do with physical similarity – which is certainly reassuring if you have ever been called by the dog’s name.
A method to the madness
The finding that we often mix up names that are semantically and phonetically related, rather than at random, gives insights into the way our memories for names are organised in the brain.
The brain tends to group names that are related. They can be related because they belong to a similar semantic category (e.g. family members, school friends, work friends). Or, they can be related because they sound alike (e.g., names starting with “S”).
According to network theories of language, each individual word is linked to other words that share similar conceptual properties. For example, your brother’s name, Paul, might be linked to your other siblings’ names (Kylie, David), as well as other names that start with “P” (Peter).
Because these names share links and are stored in close proximity in the brain, saying one name may also bring to mind other semantically or phonetically similar names. This maximises efficiency, as the brain is able to retrieve closely related information faster.
What happens when these processes break down?
Like knowledge about other types of cognitive abilities, much has been gained from studying people where the ability has been disrupted due to damage in the brain.
Our research group has a special interest in studying individuals with semantic dementia. Like other types of dementia, semantic dementia is caused by the abnormal accumulation of proteins in the brain. This ultimately leads to cell death and shrinkage of different brain regions.
In semantic dementia, the anterior temporal lobe, a part of the brain situated behind the ear, is most affected.
Individuals with semantic dementia, as the name suggests, show a progressive loss of semantic knowledge (our knowledge about facts, places, things and names). One of the earliest symptoms in semantic dementia is difficulty in naming things.
Naming difficulties in semantic dementia
People with semantic dementia show very specific types of naming errors. For example, they may call a “zebra” a “horse”, or an “animal”. This suggests that as semantic knowledge is lost, our understanding of the world becomes less specific and more generalised.
People with semantic dementia also have difficulty in recognising and naming people. This depends on which side of the brain is more affected.
People with semantic dementia who have more atrophy/shrinkage in the left hemisphere of the brain commonly struggle to recognise names. In contrast, those with greater atrophy in the right hemisphere have more trouble recognising people’s faces.
This kind of research gives us important insights into how names are represented in the brain.
It’s harder than it looks
The ability to recognise someone and call them by their correct name is incredibly complex, even though it feels like second nature to us.
Calling a person by their correct name requires integration of information across both hemispheres of the brain to connect face and name knowledge in mere milliseconds.
Understanding how this process goes wrong – whether through misnaming someone, struggling to say that word on the tip of your tongue, or switching around two words or sounds – gives us important insights into how our brain stores and retrieves the seemingly endless number of names and faces we know.
What does this mean for those of us who frequently misname our family and friends? Based on what we know about how names are organised in the brain, this common cognitive slip-up could be the brain’s way of trying to make our life easier, rather than a sign of something sinister.
So next time you say the wrong name, spare a moment to consider how challenging this ability is and how much work our brains do in order for us to call someone by their name.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at middle names in genealogical research.
The links below are to articles that take a look at Scottish names and how the naming of children worked ‘back in the day.’
The link below is to an article that takes a look at surnames and the meanings behind them.