Onomastics Research: A Day at Gloucestershire Archives

by Craig Evans

Sifting endlessly through rolls of microfilm to find what you know must be there, seems to me to be, potentially, a very dangerous pursuit. At the local archives, family history hobbyists with an insatiable appetite to find the name of yet another dead relative make you wonder when they started and whether they now know how to stop. I was there on Thursday, at the Gloucestershire Archives to be precise, getting a taste of the perils of the bottomless pit that is historical research.

Luckily I was in the experienced company of Harry Parkin, who is in the latter stages of completing his doctoral thesis on by-names and surnames of the Cotswolds. Harry invited me along for the day so that I might gain some firsthand experience of what academic research can entail; lesson one – it can be very laborious and painstaking.

Not that you really notice. After thirty minutes of scanning through the scrawlings of 17th century local parish records, I’d become mesmerised by the varying patterns of the unfamiliar script. Loops and slants and squiggles and dashes. Keep a sharp eye out, and you will find what it is you seek: Newman, Hillman, Workman, Freeman.

These were the names on Harry’s list, already identified on the online resource IGI (International Genealogical Index). Of particular interest, the suffix ‘-man’, which had it been spelt ‘-mon’ could alter the assessment of what dialects were spoken in the Cotswolds at that time. To make sure the IGI was right, a sample check of the parish records needed to be carried out.

This is easier said than done, with many of the names slipping into anonymity behind smudges and fadings and the messy scrawl of hasty scribes. Not to be deterred, Harry put on his palaeographer’s hat, and set to work, searching the pages in anticipation of that sudden pang of recognition: there it is! Newman! Workman! Freeman! On occasion, greater scrutiny was required, with minims needing to be counted, and the curvature of scribbles analysed.

Searching the archives in this way can sometimes be a bit like the combined experience of the Where’s Wally? and Magic Eye books: once you’ve found what you think is Wally, you then need to look at him in a certain way before you can confirm that it is indeed he.

Of course, for a student of onomastics, looking through parish records is never just about ticking names off a list. The records also provide a rich source of qualitative data. Every so often, Harry’s interest would be sparked by something unexpected: an unusual name, the inclusion of aliases, a curious spelling. It was then that I would have the great privilege to listen to his explanations of the whys and wherefores.

One such explanation was about the name Nelmes, for which Harry proposed the process of metanalysis as being behind its origin. Upon realising that I wanted to recount it here in this blog post, I decided to email the expert to clarify my understanding (which is just as well, because it was somewhat off). So, in Harry’s words:

“[Metanalysis is] the transfer of letters across word boundaries, as a result of how they are pronounced when occuring alongside one another. The example I talked about was the surname Nelmes. This would have happened because, at the time when the name was non-hereditary, it would have appeared as, for example, John atten* Elmes. As atte was also a common Middle English word in non-hereditary by-names, some people may have interpreted this name as John atte Nelmes, before the atte was dropped to give the name Nelmes”.


*Middle English for ‘at the’

This is one of many things that I have learned from my day at the archives. Another thing is how easy it is to lose all sense of time when doing research: barely did it seem we were just getting started, when suddenly it was time to leave.


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