Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Etymology of a Couple of Famous Surnames

[Yes, Take Our Word For It is open for business again!  More later about what's been happening and what's in store.  For now, back to the fun stuff!]

Tom Hiddleston as himself
Actors with some wonderfully Anglo-Saxon-sounding surnames are seizing headlines of late. There's the delightful Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki (swoon!) in the Marvel movie universe, and is soon to be seen in Only Lovers Left Alive with Tilda Swinton (must see!).  Then there's the enigmatic Benedict Cumberbatch, turning up everywhere from BBC's Sherlock (I'm addicted!) to providing the voice of Smaug in Peter Jackson's latest Hobbit installment (loved it!).  So what's a hiddle and why is it in town, and how does one get a batch of cumbers, and would that be cumbersome?

Surnames have origins similar to those of regular words.  My maiden name is Jeanes, and while some think it is simply a form of John, there are others who assert that it actually denotes a person from Genoa, suggesting that the original Jeanes folk likely went to England as mercenaries for William the Conqueror.  Jeans as in blue jeans has that same origin (fabric of Genoa).  So what about Hiddleston and Cumberbatch?

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock
Hiddleston is a form of Huddleston, which is ultimately a place name: "the settlement of (a man named) Hudel."  Hudel is a diminutive form of the name Hud(d), from which we also get Hudson (son of Hud(d)). So this must mean that Tom Hiddleston lived with Paul Newman!?!?  (Derp!) The "settlement" meaning arises from the -ton affix. It was tun in Old English and meant "settlement or enclosure" (most settlements were enclosed by a wall or fence of some sort) and of course gives us the word town.  This suggests that Tom's family came from Yorkshire or possibly even Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland (both locations are home to towns called Huddleston; the one in Yorkshire is the original). Any road... (for us Americans, that's Yorkshirespeak for "anyway..."), if your name is Hiddleson, it's possible that your family dropped the T, but it's also possible that your ancestor was the son of Hudel (making Hiddleson a patronymic).

Cumberbatch is another place name, suggesting that Mr. C's family hails from Cheshire, where there was a stream of that name.  The stream got its name from the personal name Cumbra, which ultimately means "Cumbrian" or Welsh and was a popular given name, and Old English bæce "stream" or "beck".  Alternatively, the stream could have been named for the more general "stream of the Welshmen" (no potty jokes please!).  Some people prefer to minimize any Welsh family heritage, but the Cumberbatches should be proud to be the owners of such a venerable old surname (after all, the Welsh have had professional poets since the Dark Ages and they have a National Eisteddfod - they can't be all bad!). But, of course, since Cumbra was apparently a popular name at the time, there may be no Welsh connection here at all.

Do you have an unusual or perplexing surname?  Let me know and I'll try to sort it out for you.  Now for some fun involving both Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch: Dance Off!  There is also this Benedict Cumberbatch Anagram Generator!


Mrs. Shinn said...

My grandmother was a Woosley. Some in previous generations spelled it Ouseley. I have wondered if there is a connection to the names Wolsey or Worsley and if there is any connection to the Ouse River. I have not been able to determine if the name still exists in the UK.

Thank you for any light you may be able to shed.

Unknown said...

Indeed, Ousley (of which Ouseley is likely a variant) and Owsley are thought to derive from Ouse (name of the river that flows through York, England) and Old English leah "clearing." Ouse is ultimately a very ancient British word, from ud- "water." This would make Ouseley a habitation name, meaning people who lived "in the clearing on the Ouse" took that as their name.