This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 13rd November 1995, 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 DEGG?

This is very much a regional name. A study of the local directories suggests that it is focused on three areas. Of them, South Staffordshire is the principal one with the greatest number of entries - about 120. The other two show a remarkable drop. There are only about 40 in North Warwickshire and less than 20 in East Derbyshire: The last group is to be found concentrated largely in the triangle based on Derby, Pinxton and Sandiacre.

Beyond these three areas names are thinly scattered. About four in the London area, one near Buxton and none at all in Merseyside. This exclusiveness is emphasised in that only Derby seems to have adopted the name for one of its streets. It is Degge Street, just off Green Lane in the centre. (The different spelling is not significant).

The earliest reference to a form of the name is to a Robert Dag who is mentioned as dwelling just across the South Staffordshire border, in Worcester (1275). Otherwise it would require considerable research into the local history of the regions to establish the exact origin and meaning of "Degg", It is not likely that any such records now survive and so. one has to rely on inspired guess-work.

As a start, it can be suggested, pretty confidently, that "Degg" or "Degge" are versions of the surname "Dagg" (which is certainly more widespread). How the "-a-" in "Dagg" . became an "-e-" illustrates a curiosity in pronunciation. It should be noted that the sound "-a-" can sometimes modulate to "-e-". For example "any" has taken on the sound "enny" and "Thames", even in the days of King Alfred, was spoken of as the "Temz". In personal names, "Maggy" sometimes becomes "Meggy", but more often "Meg". For those who like technicalities it is described as the regression of the mid-front lax vowel utterance.

So that provides persuasive evidence that some of the original bearers of the name "Dagg" pronounced it as "Degg" and this form of spelling made its way into written records.

Still, that doesn't answer the question: What does the name mean? However, if it is acceptable that "Degg" is another form of "Dagg" then we can suggest it is an occupational name, based on the word "Dagger".

There is no problem in tracing that word back to the French "Dague" and then to the Latin "Daggarius" but beyond that we draw a blank. No further origins can be tracked down. It is tempting to try and connect the word with "dirk" (the Highland dagger) and also with the expression "to dig" - that is, to plunge a sharp instrument into the ground.

Sadly, there are no links at all. However, the special function of the dagger was to act on a short, swift and thrusting movement, and so there might possibly be some identification with the Greek word "tachys" which can be rendered as "speedy" or "rapid" (pronounced something like "daggis").

So it is quite feasible to assume that the original bearers of the name "Degg" or "Dagg" might have been an ancestor who carried such a weapon and became. known, (say), as "Steve the Dagger". Whether he was so-called because he had been authorised to do so, or was armed for some unlawful purposes of his own, we shall never know.

Incidentally a suggestion that perhaps the predecessor was involved in supervising deer in Cannock Chase, which is in Staffordshire, and carried a small knife for related purposes is very doubtful. The word "deg" is certainly used in connection with the raising of deer - it describes the incipient antlers of a young stag - but unfortunately it seems first to have been used in 1859, long after the surname had become established.

Another explanation is rather less convincing but cannot be ruled out. In the Middle Ages, there weren't many ways of showing off if you had plenty of money. Posh cars and mobile phones hadn't been invented! One way to swank around was to wear an upper garment of plain material and with big holes cut in it to reveal other clothes beneath made from expensive velvets. and brocades. Because there was a fanciful resemblance to the blade of a dagger, these slits were called "dagges" or "degges" and there are many references in old books to the fact that ordinary people identified dressy neighbours as "him with all those dags" or simply "Degg". In fact the fashion ran away with itself and in 1399 the Government tried to restrict it - without success!

The unit "Dag-" also occurs in place-names, as for example, in Dagenham (Essex), Dagworth (Sussex) and even our own Dagnell, which appears as "Dagenale" in a record dated 1295. In this case the "Dag-" is understood to be a personal name, something like "Daegga": It is much older than any of the other forms looked at and it is not likely to have been the basis of either "Degg" or "Dagg". For the record it is thought to be a Germanic rendering for "day" or "light" and hence might have been thought a suitable name for somebody with a bright and cheerful disposition.

Curiously enough, in Australia and New Zealand "deg" has taken on a similar meaning (but of uncertain origin). Among many examples, a story written in 1930 indicates that the expression, "Ain't he a deg!" is very high praise.

So, in descending order of probability, families today who are called "Degg" or "Dagg" can lay claim to an ancestor who was either associated with weaponry, or who flaunted his wealth or who had a bright and sunny disposition.

The last seems to fit the character of the most celebrated bearer of the name, Sir Simon Degge (1612-1704). Born in Uttoxeter he became High Sheriff of Derbyshire. He was a lively personality and wrote a legal text book which is still referred to by specialists.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 13rd November 1995.

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