David Worboys – What did you call me?

Whether your ancestors were abstemious or otherwise may have determined your surname today.

In the days of Boys’ Own Paper, blotting paper, carbon paper and San Izal toilet paper, when we laughed at Phil Silvers and Brian Rix, there was less sensitivity about the use of words, phrases – and names.

In the 1950s, a professional lightweight boxer from Memphis chose to fight under a rather unusual pseudonym, “The Crazy Nigger”, until he was eventually talked out of it by older and wiser advisers. Yes, indeed he was black! By this I mean he was of sub-Saharan African descent.

Today this would be about as likely as Kim Jong-un taking his daughter to a Rolling Stones concert. But the question has to be asked: did this typify a more tolerant age when we were able to laugh at ourselves – and also at those trying to put us down?

It also leads me to reflect on the changing choice of names over the ages. And so we come to the mysterious evolution of people’s surnames.

The ancestors of the English poet and playwright, John Drinkwater, were presumably thirsty abstainers, unlike those of the Mayor of Estacada, Oregon. His name is Sean Drinkwine – a name of cheer in tragic times. His ancestors may have had more cause for celebration than he and his town last year, which was directly in the line of horrific forest fires.

In English alone, there are hundreds of different surnames and yet thousands use the same ones – Williams, Jones or Smith etc. Conversely there are many weird and wonderful rarities, whose provenance can only be guessed.

There seem to be several types of surname. The first originates as a description of an ancestor for the purpose of identification. For example Ericsson was the son of Eric; Julia Farmer’s ancestors looked after the crops or cattle, while those of Raymond Blanc kept out of the sun to preserve their pallid skin. Schumacher’s ancestors were a load of cobblers while Bocanegra’s either ran out of toothpaste or habitually used foul language. Does the Argentinian footballer Buonanotte sleep soundly or does he spend too much time in nightclubs?

The second category derives from common words, for reasons known or unknown, such as Green, Prior or Castle. Some may be simple names such as Morgan and Murray. Others may be words which raise eyebrows about their provenance, such as Smelley, Ramsbottom or Crapper. Or Quirk?

Then we have the names created by the mysterious fusion of two ordinary words. Waterhouse,  Henman and Biggerstaff all into this category. Often the words are completely unrelated as in Archbold, Shutterstock, Hipwell and Glasspool.

Finally, there is the random re-assembly of the letters of a common word. Remove the CH from “children” and substitute an M. and – lo and behold, we have Mildren! Fancy becomes Clancy, Howler becomes Dowler. Change one letter and Grant (or Brand) gives us Brant. The scope is unlimited.

Finally, the solicitors practising as Spiegelhalter, Nackers and Kilfeather? Hmmm.

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Written by

David Worboys

Offering a unique insight into everything from politics to food to sport, David is one of the Euro Weekly News´ most popular columnists.