Surely you’re joking, Mr. Shakespeare!

S Upendran

The Swan of Avon once said, ‘What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ I’m not so sure I quite agree with the bard. I mean, if the rose had been named ‘stinkapoo’, would Burns have considered immortalizing the flower with the lines, ‘My love is like a red, red stinkapoo’? I have my doubts. Just imagine calling up your favourite florist on Valentine’s Day, and asking him to deliver a dozen red stinkapoos to your significant other. Doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? Just as a flower should be given an appropriate name, so should a man: if he isn’t, then he will have a tough time living it down. Would Ian Fleming’s readers have taken a fancy to the debonair 007, if he had gone around saying, ‘My name is Peasant, James Peasant!’? Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? But the interesting thing is, the surname Bond means peasant! As for the woman who keeps sighing ‘Oh James’, Moneypenny, well her name is actually a corruption of ‘many a penny’, and this term was mostly used to refer to a rich man!

In this column, and perhaps in the next one, I’ll talk about the origin of certain common surnames. In the old days, since most sons followed the footsteps of their father, a person’s surname was often determined by the profession he was in. For example, if your last name was Sawyer, you spent your time sawing wood. An ‘Archer’, as you would expect, was someone who specialized in making bows for other people. Similarly, a ‘Spooner’ was someone who made spoons, a ‘Barter’ bartered or exchanged things, and a ‘Thatcher’ was someone who thatched roofs. If you required your barn to be repaired, you requested Mr. Barnes to give you an estimate. And if you needed someone to play music to liven up a party or wedding, who did you call? Why, Mr. Piper, of course!

In the foregoing paragraph, one doesn’t really need to exert one’s grey cells to make the connection between the name and the occupation. But with the kind of changes that the English language has undergone, the link between the two is not always so obvious. The surname ‘Fletcher’ was given to someone who made arrows, and anyone who called himself ‘Bannister’ usually made baskets. ‘Leech’ was the surname common among doctors: in fact, this name was transferred to the insect which sucks blood because in the old days ‘Leeches’ or doctors made use of them to treat their patients.

An individual’s profession was not the only way that a person’s surname was determined. Very often, the village he came from became an indicator of what he was to be called. If a person’s last name was ‘York’ or ‘Hampshire’, it implied that the individual came from one of these counties. James Montague, the Earl of Sandwich, the man who gave us the modern sandwich was so called because he came from the village of Sandwich in the county of Kent. It is very likely that the forefathers of the outstanding cricketer, Sir Donald Bradman, came from the Bradenham County in Norfolk. The name ‘Bradman’ literally means ‘broad man’. By no stretch of imagination was Bradman broad; the same thing, however cannot be said of the English all rounder Andrew Flintoff. His surname is actually the name of a village in Yorkshire, and it literally means ‘hill where flints are found’.

Sometimes, it was one’s surroundings which provided a clue as to what the person should be called. Remember Jim Laker, the only man to have taken 19 wickets in a test match? Well, his surname actually means ‘dweller at the stream/lake’. Makes sense, doesn’t it? And what about the Australian cricket captain, the man most Indians love to hate? The word ‘pont’ means ‘bridge’, and a ‘Ponting’ is someone who lives near a bridge. Someone who lived by ash trees was called ‘Ash’, and a person who looked after or lived next to an apple orchard was called….you guessed it, ‘Appleby’. What would you call someone who had his house in the woods? Woodhouse or Wodehouse, of course!

Another way of creating a surname was to add the word ‘son’ to one’s father’s name. Take for example the name Jackson: it literally means ‘Jack’s son’. There are quite a few names in English which end in ‘son’: Adamson (son of Adam), Nixon (son of Nick), Benson (son of Ben), and Carlson (son of Carl).

You may say, “Listen my man, you’ve dealt with quite a few surnames in the column. But what about the name that’s present in the title? What does ‘Shakespeare’ mean, and where did it come from?” For that, you’ll have to wait for the next instalment. But please, don’t hold your breath. You know what they say: there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.

The author teaches at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. He can be reached at [email protected].

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