We name names

People are sometimes interested in the derivation and origins of their surnames, even though (given patronymic lineage) it relates to some very minor portion of their heritage.  Your father provides a half of your current DNA, but he got half from his mother, and so on.  As you go back in time, your family linkages spread and spread, which explains why newspapers can prove that Prince Henry’s latest squeeze is in fact ‘distantly’ related to him.  A TV quiz question once asked who was related to King Alfred, and the answer was that, going back that far, almost everybody is.

I had a look at a list of surnames recently.  My puzzle is about patronymic names, and why they are not related to the frequency of male first names.  There are plenty of surnames which do, of course, reflect common names.  Johnson, Harrison, Davidson, Nicholson, Wilson/Williamson and so on.  Dixon and Nixon I guess are re-spellings of Dick and Nick’s progeny.  But others seem out of kilter.  Take the evangelists’ names, presumably reasonably popular in the late Middle Ages when surnames were becoming common.  Johnson, yes, and some Matthewsons even though it is not a very common name: but I have never heard of a Markson or Lukeson in my life.  Jameson seems to rarer than it should be, given the frequency of the name.  Why has Thompson acquired a ‘p’ ? Nicknames and shortenings I can understand, but why is Jackson common, whereas Bilson is rare ?  I imagine the Clarksons came from people who worked as the town clerk, but what was the first name of the father of the first Lawson or Hudson, Simpson or Patterson ? And Gibson ?  Was that Gilbert – which would make you wonder at the shortage of Gilsons – or is a gib some medieval job description ?

My own name – Perry – could have various derivations, but the most common explanation is that it is part of the Pirie, Parry, Pendry bunch, who were sons of a Welshman called Henry or Harry – hence ap Harry, ap Henry and so on.  That’s also where Pritchard, Powell and Prodger came from, and even the Upjohns and Uprichards.

Sexism rears its head here. As elsewhere.  Why don’t we have the ‘daughter’ suffix the way that Icelanders do ? Even matronymics seem rare, though one would have thought, given the death rates in old England, they might have been more common.  There are, after all, some Widdowsons around.  I guess Nelson is the most common matronymic, and there is another with a nautical flavour in Anson.  There’s Megson, too.  And was Mr Allison the son of Alice ?  I have come across the odd Margerison and Elizabethson in my time.  But no Maryson, even though Mary was the most common female name for centuries.

And occupational names.  Why are there so many more Taylors than Farmers ? More Butlers than Weavers ? How come Fletcher is the 156th most common name, whereas Archer is down at 539 (and Bowman further down) – wouldn’t you think it was the other way around ?

Anyway, views welcome, or just log into the various lists and have a play for yourself.  There is also a website where you can see the parts of the country that different surnames are found.  Why are there so many Ronsons by the seaside ?  Why has Middlesbrough got a peak of Cornish names (answer – the iron mines there opened just as Cornish mines were closing) ?  But remember, none of it matters.  Your surname is a minor speck of your past, and what matters is what you do in the present.

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