BRIGHT

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 25th March 2002, 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 BRIGHT?

If the word "charisma" had been known to our medieval ancestors then no doubt they would have used it as a designation for persons who showed the qualities it implied:- the ability to influence and inspire those around them. As it was, the expression first appeared in print only in 1930 which is about 600 years beyond the evolution of surnames. Still our predecessors were able to draw upon a vocabulary which provided corresponding surnames such as Noble, Bold, Valiant etc. And even before then personal names had also been devised to illustrate such qualities and among them was "Bercht" which was a Teutonic word and meant "shining", "bright", "famous" etc. Some of the names it generated have passed out of general use, such as "Egbert" and "Ethelbert" but others are still with us as "Albert" and "Bertram". It is from such personal names that the surname "Bright" has emerged.

Although "bright" is now pronounced to rhyme with "bite" it formerly sounded as "brickt" - and still continues in Scots dialect. It can also be discerned in the German name "Albrecht".

There are several points of interest in the word "bright". Firstly, except as a unit in personal names it no longer survives in any cognate European language except English. It can be presumed to have originated in a language spoken in central Asia called Sanskrit (c.1000 B.C. The reconstructed form was apparently "bhraj" meaning "to shine" and its progress can be followed through most north European languages such as the Old Norse "bjatr" and the Gothic "bairhts". But for some reason it vanished from all but one of these languages towards the end of the first millennium - the exception being English.

In writing the earliest form is "beorht" and which through steady modification became "bryght" (15th century) and the modern "bright". Secondly, "bright" has been influenced by a linguistic process called metathesis. Expressed very simply it describes the state of certain words where letters have swapped places around. A familiar instance occurs with "three". When the term was used originally as an ordinal (Third) it was written and pronounced as "thrid". This persisted until the 15th century and eventually "third" took over. (Note how the original order of letters is still to be seen in "thrice.") In the case of "beorht" the interchange of letters has yielded "breht" and ultimately "bright". This transformation can be seen as early as 950 A.D.

A third item of interest is that as far as can be ascertained, the significance of "beorht" or "bright" has not shown up in other words excepting only one (if personal names are discounted). It is in the naming of the tree with distinctive bright, shining or silvery bark: the Birch. It is also interesting to observe that the process of metathesis has not occurred here.

Although about a dozen different definitions attach themselves to "bright", the earliest example signifies "charm" or "beauty". It dates from the year 1250 and occurs in a hymn to the Virgin Mary where she is described as "Swo fayre, Swo Bricht" - "so bright". This definitely restricts the meaning of the word because other interpretations post-date the evolution of the surname. So, for example, suggestions that it could have described somebody who was exceptionally intelligent or mentally alert cannot be supported because the use of the word in that sense does not appear until 1741.

The expression "Bright" (various spellings are not significant) appears as a unit in both personal names and surnames until about the beginning of the 14th century. So, in the records of the Abbey of Ramsey (Huntingdon) we encounter John Briht (1252) but exactly 20 years later a Brictus le Blake appears in Daventry. Sometimes the surname expands as in the case of Brightman (John Brithman, Norfolk, 1273). This version of the surname is listed as special to Bedfordshire. Another variation is Brightmore which is simply an extension of the personal name and means "popular and good-looking." (Harvey Brithnor - Cambridge - 1309).

Taking all in all, in whatever form the surname now appears it can be fairly postulated that it would have related to an ancestor who was exceptionally prepossessing.

It is widely distributed across England but is not listed in the standard catalogue of Scots names. There is some evidence of concentration in the north-west. Locally there are 20 entries in the directory. Among the personalities bearing the name, mention may be made of John Bright (1811-1889) the Liberal politician and of Richard Bright (1789 - 1858) the physician who first researched the disorder now called "Bright's Disease". Here in Matlock the name is known to many of us on account of our own Michael Bright at the jewellers (Thompson) on Causeway Lane.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 25th March 2002.

URL of this page: http://names.gukutils.org.uk/Bright.shtml
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