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What's in a name?;Literacy

Sue Palmer looks at the stories behind some famous monikers

The stories behind the naming of things are interesting even to the youngest child, answering as they do that perennial question "...Why?" Under the National Literacy Strategy, children are required to investigate surnames - and the names of places, products, days and months in Year 6. But it's a shame to leave it so late.

You could begin by looking at the origin of the names of some key figures in the field of education. For instance, long ago, there was a Scottish battlefield, known in Gaelic as a blar. The site became associated with a nearby family, providing them with the surname Blair. Other surnames based on a particular family's original dwelling place are Woodhead, which means the folk who live at the top of the woods, and Brighouse (as in Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer), which means house by the bridge.

Most surnames made their appearance in this country and its neighbouring lands during the Middle Ages. When the population grew, names were duplicated and it became necessary to distinguish one Anthony or Michael from another.

Some surnames came from occupations - Barber, for instance (as in Michael Barber, standards supremo at the Department for Education and Employment). Barbers were significant members of the community in those days: not only did they trim beards but they also carried out minor surgery, and removed bad teeth.

Other families merely passed on the name of a patriarch, so that the surnames of today's powerful women, such as Hodge (Margaret Hodge, junior education and employment minister), a diminutive of Roger, remind us that once only men were powerful.

But perhaps the most interesting names are those related to medieval man's personal qualities. The name Morris (Estelle Morris, minister for schools), for instance, meant "dark-skinned", while Blunkett may hark back to the French blanc, and the diminutive -ette, suggesting its original owner was a pasty-faced little chap. And the first Stannard (stane-hard) (John Stannard, director of the National Literary Strategy) was clearly as hard as stone.


These sometimes relate to place names, such as Wells, Conway, Preston; sometimes to topo-graphical features, such as Banks, Ford, Green, Beck (stream), Moss (marsh or swamp), Holt (thicket), Knowles (hilltop), Shaw (small wood); and occasionally to man-made structures such as Hall, Bridges, Yates (gates) and Halliwell (holy well).


Many relate to hair-colouring, for example Brown, Blake (black), White, Reed (red), Adams (red-faced). Others are more interesting - Noble, Ball (fat or bald), Vaughan (little) and Winslet ("little friend"); Belcher, Cruikshank ("crooked leg"), Fairfax ("beautiful hair"), Curtis ("educated" or "short stockings"), Mallory ("unlucky") and Savage.


Some of these are obvious, for example Archer, Thatcher, Forester, Shearer, Carter, Potter, Miller, Smith. Others relate to occupations which are defunct - Fletcher (maker of arrows), Cartwright (maker and repairer of carts), Reeve (chief magistrate), Kemp (warrior or champion) Frobisher (polisher of armour), Kellogg ("kill hog", slaughterer).


Many common names originated this way - "Hugh", for instance, gave us Hughes, Hewitt, Hutcheon, Hutchinson and many more. Ancient Williams, for instance, gave us Gilliam, Wilcox, Wilkie, Williamson and Wilson. In Scotland and Ireland, "Mac" or "Mc" means "son of", as in MacDonald and McLeod ("son of the ugly one"), as does the Irish "O" (O'Donnell for example). The Welsh equivalent "ap" still lingers in names like Pritchard, Parry and Probert.


The study of place names links English to history and geography, allowing us to trace waves of invaders and settlers across the country. Names such as Carlisle and Dover are reminders that the first inhabitants of this land were Celts, eventually driven to the West by Anglo-Saxon invaders. Wales and Cornwall, where the Celts ended up, owe their names to the Old English word waelisc, meaning "foreigners", showing just how soon the invaders made themselves at home.

Viking invasions brought Viking place names, especially in the north-east of England, then after 1066 the Normans added their two-penn'orth. Many place names are hybrid, as settlers adapted what they thought they heard the natives say. Sometimes a new addition had the same meaning as the original: River Avon actually means River River and Torpenhow Hill means Hill-hill-hill Hill.

* The Celts were here

caer, car fort

tor, crag, pen hill

avon river

dover water

aber river mouth

* The Romans were here

caster, cester chester camp

street, strat street

port gate, entrance

* The Anglo-Saxons

bar, borough, burgh hill, mound

mouth, lake, pool, well water

lee, leigh, ley forest, glade

ham, barton, stead, ton, wich settlement

and many obvious words (cliff, bridge, ford, gate, way) * The Vikings

by, thorp (e) settlement

thwaite clearing, toft, homestead

* The Normans

beau, bel, bew beautiful

ville town

prefix de, du, dela of


In the past, products were usually named somewhat prosaically after their originators, such as Kellogg's Cornflakes, Heinz Beans and Birds Eye frozen foods (the original Mr Birdseye having noticed while out trapping in Labrador that dead animals when frozen stayed nice and fresh). A few items - such as sandwiches and Hoovers - have taken over their originators' names completely. The naming of products is nowadays big business. Widening markets mean it's also important to ensure that names (like Krapp toilet paper from Sweden, Sweat sports drink from Japan and Dribly lemonade from France) have no unfortunate resonances in other languages.


* Adolph Dassler (Adi to his friends) used his nickname plus three letters of his surname to name his sportswear company Adidas.

* Coca-Cola was originally made from the coca shrub and the cola nut.

* Hovis is a concertinaed form of the Latin hominis vis - "the strength of man".

* Lego is from the Danish leg godt, meaning "play well".

* Kia-Ora is a Maori greeting meaning "good health".

* Nike is the name for the Ancient Greek goddess of victory.

* Marmite is French for "stewpot" (note the shape of the jar).

* 7-up was coined when the original name (Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda) wasn't considered snappy enough. Its inventor tried six others before throwing in the towel and calling it 7-up.

* Subbuteo is Latin for "hobby" (as in Falco subbuteo - hobby hawk).

* Scotch Tape was originally devised as masking tape for car bodywork by some factory-owners, two of whom were Scottish. An early version kept peeling off and a factory worker sent it back with the suggestion, "Tell your stingy Scotch bosses to put more adhesive on it."

* Volvo is Latin for "I roll".

Publishers have not yet spotted the gaping hole in the market for language reference books for children, but the following books are reasonably accessible for older children: The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto The Guinness Book of Names by Lesley Dunkling The Penguin Dictionary of names by Basil Cottle The Best Baby Name Book by Louise Nicholson (Thorsons).

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