Origins of the Chitty name and family

These three classes, patronymic, vocational and topographical leave unexplained certain names commonly called 'Nicknames'. Although Basil Cottle in the 'Penguin Dictionary of Surnames' calls them 'the smallest and easiest class', they may be considered the most problematical. Indeed it seems that many of them may belong to the topographical group. Thus WHITEHEAD looks like a description of an extremely blond man, but may refer to a home on some promontory like Beachy Head (though WHITELOCK seems a good example of a personal nickname, particularly as the physical characteristic of a white lock of hair in a generally darker head is a strongly heritable genetic character). And it is at least possible that, as the man who moved from Norton to Sutton was called 'of, or from, Norton', so he who moved from Kingsteignton to Bishopsteignton may have been called 'of, or from, Kings'. This seems more likely than that he played 'One of the Three Kings' in the local cycle of Miracle or Mystery Plays - the theory that expains royal, noble and ecclesiastical surnames as 'Pageant Names'.

The many names derived from animals and birds are commonly called nicknames, assuming an appearance or a manner suggestive of the creature named; but if it could be shown that the 16th and 17th century custom of indicating a shop to the illiterate customer by a painted sign, still surviving in inns, was common throughout the country at a much earlier period, this would be a more plausible explanation of why a man was called LAMB or STARLING; he lived 'at the sign of' the Lamb, etc. How and when a personal surname applicable to an individual came to be attached to his whole family is a fascinating but perhaps unanswerable question. Clearly whole families must often have been employed as smiths; but how first did a son who became a carpenter retain the name SMITH instead of being called CARPENTER?

Miss Withycombe in 'The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Names' gives an example of the literal patronymic being transformed into a family name, One Akaris FitzBardolph was father of Hervey FitzAkaris and the line proceeded to one who might be called Henry FitzHugh FitzRandolph FitzHenry FitzHervey FitzAkaris FitzBardolph; this Henry was living in 1321 and his son was called not FitzHenry but FitzHugh, which then continued as the hereditary family name.

So much for the general subject of surnames, except to remark that, as there were many Hughs, many Smiths, and many émigrés from many places called Sutton, it is clear that few surnames belong exclusively to the descendants of one common ancestor.

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Page created 29 Sept 2001 by Mike Chitty; text written 1975 by the late Erik Chitty