Friday 14 February 2014


I've written about Icelanders before because many of them have yet to adopt fixed surnames.  It is now an almost unique peculiarity in Europe.  In Ireland by contrast we've had surnames for a very long time and they seem to predict something about our politics and possibly other stuff as well.

A lot of old jokes about Wales, Welsh and the Welsh hinges on the paucity of surnames in the Principality:
Agent is parachuted into a remote part of Wales during the war, having been told that his contact lives in Ffynnoncapelgwyrdd next to the Post Office.  He finds his way to the village as dusk falls, identifies the house, and rings the bell.  When the door is opened he says "The daffodils are early this year". Which elicits the reply "Oh no, I'm Jones the Bread, you want Jones the Spy at number 33".
Evans, Jones, Davies are all clearly derived from first names. Such names are common in England but occupational surnames like Smith, Baker, Cooper, Thatcher are too.

A couple of night ago, Hidalgo La Manch' (our man from La Mancha) was telling us that, back home, he is known by several Apodos (nicknames) which he has unwillingly inherited because of the various pecularities of his forebears.  They come down from both his mother's and father's family and are essential for anyone who wants to 'place' him in a "where are his people buried?" sense.   I won't write them down all in the same sentence because someone back home may be able to googlidentify him. His town includes dynasties known as sartén-puerco, cabezon, chimenea, liebre-pie; which might be translated as skillet-pig, big-head, hearth and hare's-foot but which are in some cases loaded with baggage: in Spain you eat cerdo because puerco verges on the obscene, as cochon is said to in French.  I found this all irresistibly quaint and delightful, and I wished we had that sort of thing here.

Then yesterday I was off collecting water samples for The Great Lithium Project, and was trying to establish if one of my contributers knew another by the name of Kavanagh.  Kavanagh is a very common name hereabouts - the local king when there were several kings to each province was called MacMorrough Kavanagh - so we tried to establish whether my water-donor was a Butt (as in 'kind of short') Kavanagh or a Bone-setter Kavanagh. And then I remembered that across the valley we have Red Nevilles and Black Nevilles who don't all have the requisite hair-colour but have inherited the name from ancestors who did.

I've written about the strange names that sailors use for particular dishes.  They also have highly ritualised nicknames for people based on their surnames.  The derivation of some of these are quite clear: all Millers are 'Dusty'; Murphys tend to be 'Spud'.  Some of them are straight out of musical-hall or more recently from television: 'Dolly' Parton or 'Perry' Mason.  'Aggie' Weston pays tribute to the redoubtable Anges Weston founder of the Royal Naval Sailors' Rests in Portsmouth and Devonport.  But why 'Pincher' Martin?  'Scrumpy' Marshall?  'Nobby' Clarke?  'Buster' Crabb?  You can't get anywhere trying to chase down the derivation of the first because the WWW is swamped with the book of the same name by William Golding.


  1. any Doherty worth his salt got the abbreviated "Doc" in the 70's & 80's because a certain Tommy Docherty was manager in the then English First Division of Football. Derby and Man Utd certainly benefited from his services. uncertain if this is still the case. growin gup there were seven A Doherty's living which was no bother for the postman until he retired and a new chap from outside the area took the job...handy way of avoiding a bill. Needless to say you could get a chapter out of the means of local identification employed

  2. Very addendum, in Mid Wales where I've hitched my bridle for the last 10 years, most people are not known by their last names, but the house they live in, so I'd be Freda, Great House, in my hamlet, you also have Angela The Lanark, as opposed to Angela The Poole (small lake near her house), Pat, The Summergill, Stephen, The Maesmelan, to name a few...however, my 103 year old neighbour is just known as Mother...even to the postman..