Once upon a time, I used to teach Adult Literacy and sometimes, just for the craic and the look on their poor faces, I would announce to the students that the subject of the day’s session was going to be Anthroponomastics. There would be blank looks, there would be looks of horror, sometimes there would be looks of antagonism and very often there were looks of consternation. I could almost see the words,
“What the hell is he going on about now?”
forming in the very minds of the students. After all, these were adults who, for whatever reasons, had not learned to read or write to a functional level, and were in college to rectify that deficiency.
So, what was that big word again, what does it mean and why do we need to learn it? My students were not stupid, far from it, they had just been disadvantaged in the past, and I saw no reason to treat them as gormless just because they could not read or write. So I gave them the same session that I also gave as part of the teacher-training course I taught to graduate tutors but just stripped out all the technical language, apart from the title of the thing – anthroponomastics.
If any of you have a smattering of Greek, you may have already worked out that it means ‘the study of the names of people’, and we are all curious about why our names are what they are. There are regional and cultural differences about human naming systems but here in Western Europe we tend to use one of four variants for our surnames.
The first of these is the patronymic method; you are called after your father’s, or another male ancestor’s, name. So if your father was called William, your surname would be Williamson or maybe Wilson, or sometimes, using the archaic Norman prefix Fitz (cognate with fils – son), Fitzwilliam. In Scots, the Mac or Mc prefix serves the same purpose – MacDonald is the son (or descendant) of Donald. In Irish, it’s O’ – O’Brien is the son (or grandson) of Brien. In Welsh, it’s ap – ap Hywel (or Powell) is the son (etc) of Hywel. You can throw in rough analogies to other languages – ibn serves for Arabic, Bar- in Jewish, -ovich in Russian and –escu in Romanian, for instance. (Sometimes, in some cultures, the reverse happens, where a parent becomes known by the name(s) of their offspring – this is called teknonymy).
The second method of naming is by occupation. The family name derives from the job an ancestor once did, or what you do now – hence Baker, Gardener, Archer. Some of these occupational names are historically interesting – a Cooper was a barrel-maker, a Wright was any maker of things, so Wheelwright made wheels, Cartwright made carts and wagons. A Fletcher was a person who fletched, that is put the feathers (or fletchings) on arrows. An Arrowsmith made the arrows. The simple suffix ‘s’ made a possessive – hence Roberts was someone who ‘belonged’ to a master called Robert, Williams was the servant (or slave) of William.
The third method comes from the attribute(s) of a person. It is almost a type of nickname (which comes from an eke-name, where eke is Old English for also, and where a morpheme misdivision has been applied – what’s called metanalysis), and is used to describe a person. This takes such common forms as Long or Longfellow (for a tall man), Redhead, Armstrong or Small. It’s distinctive way of avoiding confusion – John Long and John Little are unlikely to be mistaken for each other.
The final method is based on places. It may be where you were born, or where you now live. It can be the actual name of the place, or it may be a description of a place, and it may be very precise or it may be quite general. My own name – Hartley – takes this form (the clearing where deer are found), as do such names as Bridges, Green, Park or Sands.
This method of engaging students works very well (which is why it was in the teacher-training course, as an example of how to get students interested), as it applies to everyone, quite simply because we all have a name, and that name means something. Examples of each sort of the four methods can be found within the class itself. It involves thinking which is not reliant on the ability to read or write, but can be drawn from life experience – you don’t need to have to be able to read to work out that Smith is a worker who makes things, nor to provide examples of various –smiths (Blacksmith, Silversmith, Gunsmith etc).
It introduces the idea that words can be built up from smaller elements, and that by learning these smaller elements you can then use them to build longer words (all that stuff about syllables, morphemes, suffixes, prefixes and so on), and that words themselves have histories and meanings (etymology etc). In a follow up class, I would do the same again but with place names (toponomastics), and pull apart familiar place names into their elements, showing how history plays such an important part in our current lives – the preponderance of Nordic elements in Northern toponyms was a springboard for a discussion on the Viking invasions, for instance.
A favourite exercise was to see if, as a class, we could come up with an example of every alphabetical instance of the –ton suffix in English place names, from Accrington and Bolton onwards (you have to cheat – Euxton, near Chorley, is a good cheat for ‘x’ and you have to pass on ‘j’ and ‘z’, but this is also a good starting point for another discussion of the history and development of the English language). I’ve observed other tutors using this approach in literacy classes and I never saw a bad session when it was done properly, with plenty of preparation.
I’ve also been unfortunate enough to witness exceptionally proficient literacy tutors deliberately driven out of the profession for adopting such a similar student-centred, multi-disciplinary approach to andragogy, simply because those sympathies did not happen to fit neither into the empire-building enterprises of certain ambitious individuals nor in the self-interested fiscal considerations of other ‘acknowledged experts’ in the highly lucrative business of private sector consultancies, but then again that’s an all together different kettle of fish. However, there are those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing and, unfortunately, they will always be amongst us.
Personal rant – It’s been one of those days. Normal service will be resumed soon. Thank you. (And sorry for the lack of pictures).