Surnames, and what they tell us.

Surnames, or family names, often tell us more about our origins than we might want to admit to. All those Smiths, Cooks, Bakers, Butchers and Wheelwrights of our acquaintance – worthy souls no doubt, but their ancestry is hardly posh, rooted firmly in trade for all to see.

The Cooper’s, Wainwrights’, Chamberlain’s, Cowen’s, Hadland’s etc. origins are a little more obscure as the families were once in occupations that have more or less died out. (a Cooper being someone who made and repaired barrels (as were Hoopers); Wainwright was a wagon maker; Chamberlain was once the officer who managed a noble person’s household, Cowen was a keeper of cows, Hadland owned the small bit of land at the top of a large field (the headland, so to speak) that the large local landowner couldn’t be bothered with.

The Butler surname is not as straightforward as it seems. There are simply too many Butler families around these days for them all to be descended from men who once were in charge of the wine cellar in a grand stately home. In fact the name didn’t start out as ‘butler’ at all, but as Anglo-Norman bouteler, meaning bottle (like the modern French bouteille). A butler, therefore, was once a bottle maker or seller, i.e. a bottler, not a butler. A large household would have needed a bottler to keep charge of all the bottles, including, when it became a fashionable drink in England, the bottles of wine. And thus the role of the butler was created.

Some of the more unusual English names starting with ‘D’ (like Deveraux, or D’Eath/ Death) have French origins. In France a noble lineage is indicated by the inclusion of ‘de’ before the family name (or d’ if the surname begins with a vowel). Of course, many aristocrats lost their heads during the French revolution, or quietly dropped any titular indication that they might belong to the nobility, to try to escape this fate. When relative peace was restored, the allure and usefulness of a title re-asserted itself (it helps when booking a table at a restaurant, or a hairdresser appointment, I understand), and many aspirational French families simply pinched the title of a deceased family, or bought one from an impoverished noble. This latter method is, I understand, how the family of the former French President, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, acquired his surname (and I hope I don’t get my head chopped off if I’ve got this wrong.)

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