Bawdiness of the Bard – The possibly rude origin of Shakespeare’s surname

William Shakespeare. Picture: Johnny Green/PA

William Shakespeare. Picture: Johnny Green/PA - Credit: PA

PETER TRUDGILL on the sometimes rather rude origins of surnames.

Some family names, in spite of having been passed down across the generations for the last 500 years or more, still retain a form which makes it easy to see what they originally meant. In an earlier column, we already noted colour-based names like Browne and White. Particularly interesting, though, are names which read like mini-sentences.

One such name consists of a verb plus an adverb: Golightly. This is not just an invention of Truman Capote's for his character Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's, the part played by Audrey Hepburn in the film derived from the book.

It is also a perfectly real family name that would originally have meant something like 'walk nimbly'. The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland shows that there were more than 900 people bearing that surname in the most recent UK census.

We also find quite a number of sentence-like surnames which are formed from a verb plus a noun. Hornblower is another real name, not just a fictional one thought up by C.S. Forester for his Napoleonic Wars naval captain Horatio Hornblower.


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The name was applied to someone who blew a horn – that is, the town or village watchman who was charged with signalling an emergency or the beginning and end of a curfew.

Another surname with this kind of structure is Drinkwater, which would probably have been given as a nickname to a person who preferred to drink water rather than small beer, the weak ale that was the beverage of preference for many people in the Middle Ages when water was often contaminated – fermented drinks provided some degree of protection against infection.

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It could perhaps also have been used ironically of a drunkard. There is a similar French-language name, presumably awarded to individuals for the same reasons, Boileau.

An English-language name of the same type is Gotobed. It is perhaps hard to believe, but true, that this originally meant exactly what it says – it was a nickname given to someone who, one supposes, went to bed frequently or perhaps very early, though there is no indication as to what reason or purpose sent them to their bed so often.

There is nothing mysterious, either, about the surname Dolittle or Doolittle, which appears to have genuinely been a label given as a nickname to lazy people who were not actually inclined to do very much.

And Makepeace really was the name for an arbitrator or peacemaker; though it could also very likely have been used ironically of someone who raised hell and created disturbances.

Quite a large number of occupational nicknames have the same verb-plus-noun structure as Makepeace. A Mr Leadbetter or Leadbeater would have been someone who worked with lead and would, from time to time, have to pound it into shape.

My own surname is an East Anglian dialect form of Threadgold, which was a nickname for someone who 'threaded gold' – in other words, an embroiderer who sewed fine robes and surplices for the clergy.

The name Wagstaff also looks as if it ought to refer to someone who wagged a staff, and it probably was used initially for a beadle. Wagstaff is not totally dissimilar in form and meaning to the name Shakespeare.

And Shakespeare did also certainly mean what it said. It was possibly first used for a man who was a military spear-carrier, but it is equally possible that it was a nickname for someone who was belligerent or quick to arm himself.

It is also conceivable that, like Wagstaff, it had some kind of obscene significance.

This is not the place to enter into an extended discussion of that possibility, but the fact is that the name of our revered Bard might well have had a bawdy meaning applied, not of course to the good William himself, but to some licentious male ancestor.

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