A conceited look or a spiteful glance sometimes led to an ancestor’s being saddled with an unflattering last name.
Advice columnist Abigail Van Buren once received a letter from a Mr. Hooker, a relative of General Joseph Hooker of Civil War fame. “I don’t know how my family name became a synonym for prostitute, whore, or harlot, but I find it very offensive,” he said. The writer went on to say that his son contemplated a name change because his fiancee “doesn’t want to be a ‘Hooker,’ and she says if she has daughters she doesn’t want them to be ‘Hookers,’ either.”1 The origin of Hooker, as a surname, has nothing to do with “the world’s oldest profession.” Instead, it seems to derive from another occupation: a maker of hooks.2 The earliest known reference calling a prostitute a “hooker” is 1845, but the term gained wider attention with the arrival sixteen years later of General Hooker, and—as historian Thomas P. Lowrey says—”his order concentrating on the whores in Washington’s Murder Bay.”3
Surnames developed gradually and casually in the Middle Ages, not through a formal or legal system. In a growing population, there was a need to distinguish people with the same common first names within a village or town, and last names came about as a means of sorting who was who on the tax lists. But oftentimes our ancestors were saddled with surnames originating as uncomplimentary nicknames.
More than 130 years ago, noted English etymologist Charles W. E. Bardsley attributed the emergence of these unflattering names with the arrival of the Normans. Broad comedy was a part of their nature, and a “vein for the ludicrous was speedily acquired. It spread in every rank and grade of society.”4
Blackinthemouth, Wiselheade (Weaselhead), Broadgirdel, Giddyhead, Druncard (Drunkard), Sot, Badneighbor, Bastard, Devil, Hellicate (Hellcat), Gabbers, Piggesflesh and Hoggesflesh are among these surnames, some of which are prefaced with the Norman le (meaning “the). The meanings of other surnames are not as easily apparent, such as Gadling or Gedling (a gossiper), Bugg (uncouth or weird), le Burgulian (the braggart), le Crump (a crooked back), Haine (wretched), Turk (rowdy), Clapp (obese) and Luske (slothful). Two Irish examples are Crotty (hunchback) and Fogarty (an outlaw or someone who has been banished).
Coote may have been a nickname for a bald man, comparing him to a fowl. Because its bill extended onto the head, the coot looked like a bald-headed bird. But somewhere along the way, coot became slang for “stupid” or “foolish.” Another unflattering aviary nickname was Woodcock, meaning “gullible,” because (like the bird) he was easily caught. Le Lewed, though not meaning lewd, implied simplicity or ignorance. In Fourteenth Century Norfolk, Craske was a familiar raunchy take on the French cras and the Latin crassus. Not surprisingly, Richard le Cras and Stephen Crassus were Norfolk residents.
Bardsley noted the tame acceptance on the part of the “stigmatized bearer” of these surnames, but explains that the era was rougher and coarser. The bearer of the derogatory surname “had little to do with the question. He did not give himself the nickname, he received it; pleasant or unpleasant, as he has no voice in the acquisition. “5 Bardsley also remarked:6
There is something indescribably odd, when we reflect about it, that the turn of a toe, the twist of a leg, the length of a limb, the colour of a lock of hair, a conceited look, a spiteful glance, and miserly habit of some in other respects unknown and long-forgotten ancestor should still five or six centuries afterward be unblushingly proclaimed to the world by the immediate descendants.
A number of unflattering surnames disappeared, due to an ancestor’s relocation, the family’s efforts in changing the spelling and pronunciation of their name, or simply dropping it all together. In Surnames, DNA, and Family History, authors George Redmonds, Turi King, and David Hey give an example of a Yorkshire family named Smallbehind who became Smallbend.7
“As time wore on, and the nation became more refined, there was an attempt made, successful in many instances, to throw off the more objectionable of these names,” Bardsley wrote. “Some were so utterly gross and ribald as even in that day to sink into almost instant oblivion.”8
Foulfish and Polecat faded, while Fool vanished rather quickly. The first census enumeration in the United States — 1790 — includes a number of last name that have since vanished. In “Linking Us to the Past — Name By Name”, Myra Vanderpool Gormley notes: “It is not difficult to understand why some of the surnames that appear in 1790 census have passed out of existence because people tend to avoid and change peculiar ones, especially those that can be ridiculed.”
Not all shocking surnames faded into oblivion, however. Augustine Bastard is found in Devonshire during the reign of Edward II (1317-1327).9 Of Augustine’s surname, Bardsley remarks it was “proudly borne by at least one ancient English county family.”10 Indeed, a family with that last name lived in Kitley, in Devonshire, for generations, flourishing and gaining prominence. References are found to Lady Bridget Bastard in the mid-1700s, and one hundred years later Reverend P. P. Bastard.11
Buzzard is thriving, ranking at 8,122 on the list of the 55,000 most common American surnames. The name is thought to have been given to a scavenger, though some bearing the name may find ancestors named Bossart. The appearance of Buz’zard may have been an attempt to introduce a different sound, though others feel it points to a French background.12
Hogg did not necessarily derive from a derogatory nickname. Instead, it may refer to an ancestor who worked as a butcher. Nevertheless, some American Hoggs prefer to pronounce their name as if it were spelled Hoag. The British, by no means, held a monopoly on derogatory names. Holsapple, an Americanization from Holzapfel (crabapple, indicating a sour disposition) and Bos (audacious or reckless) are both German. Broms (annoying) is Swedish, and Bobo (stammering) is Spanish.
In the Netherlands, my own ancestors became known as Slecht, the Dutch word for “bad.” As early as 1577, Cornelis Jans Petersz is noted in record as “alias Slecht.”13 The new name stuck, and descendants continue to bear that surname, though it has been Americanized to Slack, Slaght, Slaught and Sleight.
Similarly, a friend received an e-mail from a farmer in Gordola, Switzerland—the home of her Robasciotti ancestors—with a note on the meaning of the surname. “I don’t know if I must tell you this . . . in our Italian dialect the word robasciot means ‘stealing of cow or sheep dung.'”
The examples given in this article are not a claim to link all individuals with the same surname, for even one surname often has more than one origin. American last names have gone through so many transformations in spelling and sound, that only an in-depth genealogical study can answer the question of its meaning in a particular family—if at all.
As for my friend with the ancestral surname linked to dung theft, she learned that one of her Robasciotti forebears married into an English family named Crapp.
- Abigail Van Buren, The Best of Dear Abby (Kansas City, Andrews and McNeel, Inc., 1981), pp. 182-183.
- La Reina Rule and William K. Hammond, What’s In A Name?: Surnames of America (New York: Jove Publications, Inc., 1978), p. 228.
- Thomas P. Lowrey, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War (Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stockpole Books, 1994), pp. 146-148.
- Charles Wareing Endell Bardsley, English Surnames: Their Sources and Significations (London: Chatto and Windus, 1875), pp. 424-425.
- Ibid., p. 426.
- George Redmonds, Turi King, and David Hey, Surnames, DNA, & Family History (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2011), p. 70.
- Bardsley, English Surnames: Their Sources and Significations, p. 427.
- [Anonymous], Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem and Other Analogous Documents Preserved in the Public Record Office, Prepared Under the Superintendent of the Deputy Keeper of the Records, Vol. VI. Edward II (Lendeln/Liechtenstein: Kraus-Thomson Organization Limited, repr. 1973), p. 451.
- Bardsley, A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames: With Special American Instances (London: H. Frowde, 1901), p. 83.
- Summaries of deeds, estate, family, personal and miscellaneous records about the Bastard family of Kitley are found by a search of the British-based website, http://www.a2a.org.uk, as downloaded 15 December 2005.
- Monte P. Buzzard, Buzzard and Alt Families (San Luis Obispo: Cal.: the author, 1991), pp. 51-52.
- Nico Plomp, “Nieuw-Nederlandse en hun Europese achtergrond, ” Jaarboek: Centraal Bureau voor Genealogie, Deel 50, 1996 (De Haag: the Central Bureau for Genealogy, 1996), p. 151.