ADAMS

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 21st April 1997, reproduced by kind permission of the author, Desmond Holden.

The "What's in a Name" series has been a regular feature in the Advertiser.
Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames and Desmond regrets he is unable to undertake research into the genealogy, descent or family history of individuals.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

"In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves."

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called ADAMS?

This is obviously based upon the well-known personal name, and, along with related variations such as "Adamson" and the Scots "McAdam" means "one whose father was called Adam".

"Adam" is taken from the Bible but contrary to a widely held belief, it is not a first name. The prevailing opinion by modern scholars is that it is based on the Hebrew word "adama" which is usually taken as referring to the characteristic reddish earth which is to be found in the East. The choice of expressions which cover this concept and which are familiar to readers of English Ver sions of the Bible are principally either "the slime of the earth" (Catholic translations) or "the dust of the ground (Protestant versions). This notion that the first human being was created from such material is not unreasonabIe. In primitive communities clay was the first pliable material known and from which shapes could emerge. When all creatures died it was noticed that body fluids dried out and what remained fell to dust.

The Ancient Greeks believed that Zeus had fashioned human beings from clay and a corresponding story is told among the North American Indians. Thus: All the animals set to and sought to design the "perfect animal". Each beast fancied that it represented absolute perfection in itself and simply took clay and made a model of itself. It fell to the Coyote (who is of special standing in the Indian Tradition) to select the best features of every species and blend them into a composite form. Labouring all through the night he completed a model of a Man. When dawn came he poured water over all the other models, spoiled them, leaving his production as being the only image into which life was breathed and became "Man".

The early references in the Bible to the first Human Being employ only the expression "the man" and it is not until one reaches Genesis II: 9 that the name "Adam" is suddenly introduced. Whether at that point it is then to be understood as a personal name is better left to the Theologians to sort out although it may be mentioned that most of them doubt it. For the ordinary reader "Adam" appears only once in a context which would make it seem to be a first name, and that is in Genesis V and then it is never used again - except once, and then only as a passing conventional beginning to a genealogical table at the beginning of the First Book of Chronicles.

It is true that there are two further references: Deuteronomy XXXII: 8 and Job XXXI: 33, but neither really is applicable to a single person, but to all mankind. In Job, for instance, the phrase "as Adam" is glossed in the margins as signifying "as most men do".

Hence "Adam" was not regarded by the Hebrews as a persona name and they interpreted it as meaning "Mankind". It would most certainly not have been appropriate to call anybody "Mankind" and in fact it was never used by them at all. It would have borne much the same meaning, say, as "Earthling" - so beloved of Science Fiction writers!

How the Early Christians came to adopt it is something of a mystery, but it is suggested that the name "Adam" occurs about six times in New Testament writings and in passages which could easily have led them to have misinterpreted it as being a given name.

So, in conclusion, it may be taken that "Adam" by itself meant "earth" or "clay" and, by extension, "Man" in the sense of "Humanity" or "Mankind".

The earliest application of the name known to dates from 626. It took the form "Adamnan" which means "Adam the little". He is an Irish Saint and historian. We aren't certain in what way he was "little" but since he was of an Irish Royal family, it might have been to distinguish him from an older or senior namesake. He wrote an account of the life of St. Columba of Iona which is still a classic of its kind. He died in 704 and he is commemorated on 23rd September. The name was very popular throughout Western Europe and in Anglo-Saxon England it was for a long while the third favourite among boys' names.

This was especially so in the North: more than a dozen "Adams" are mentioned in a list dating from around 1290 and relating to Furness Abbey alone. So it is not surprising that "Adam" would have generated countless surnames. The name remained a choice until the 13th Century but then it gradually fell out of use probably because it was thought to be too "rural" and more appropriate to "yokels" - and by 1700 it is rarely encountered. In lists compiled during the following centuries it was never in the "Top Fifty". It has enjoyed a slight revival during the past SO years and actually reached 7th place in the charts for 1988 but it has now fallen I some 10 places (1995).

Although "Adam" occasionally appears as a single name, most versions take forms to indicate that the bearer is a "son of Adam". The earliest mention is to somebody who seems to have been a Gamekeeper in Lancaster, simply called "Adam" (1146) but "Adams" is found in Huntingdon, as "Juliana Adams" in 1273. In Scotland we encounter, "John Adamson" (1296). As in the case of many first names it evolved a pet form: "Addy" and this gives us "Adey" and "Addison". Another homely tag was "-kin" and this means "the little one" and in this case we find the English forms "Atkin", "Atkins" and "Atkinson". In Scotland it usually is spelled with an "-i-" hence "Aitken".

The name is well-distributed across the entire English-speaking world. It was borne by two American Presidents. There are over 200 listed in the Local Directories. Its most familiar form is the Scots equivalent: John MacAdam (1756-1836) the celebrated road builder. Older readers will certainly recall the name "Stephen Adams", a name assumed by a Victorian composer whose splendid song, "The Holy City" is still regularly performed.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 21st April 1997.

URL of this page: http://names.gukutils.org.uk/Adams.shtml
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library