This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 11th 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 DUNN?
(Variations include Donne, Downing, Dunning etc)

Pope Gregory's well-known comparison between Angles and Angels has tended to promote the notion that our early English ancestors were all fair, blond and tall. Whether this was the case is challengeable but it seems that people with dark skin and hair were sufficiently exceptional to have been singled out and given names which incorporated the unit "dun". This was a Celtic expression and is one of the few which are still found in current English such as "crockery". In Ireland it took the form "Donn" and in Welsh "Dwn".

A sort of classical dictionary compiled in 997 A.D. matches "dun" with the Latin "cineris" which signifies " greyish-brown". In 1366 Chaucer describes a lady thus: "She was not broune ne dunne of hewe". Out of the word have emerged personal names such as " Duncan" and "Dunstan" and which, in turn, have generated countless surnames. Of these the basic can be taken as "Dunn" (England and Scotland) and "Dwynn" in Wales. The earliest English reference occurs in Gloucester (1180) and is to a John le Dun. In Scotland we find David Dunne of Peebles (1260). It would be interesting to know how many people locally can claim descent from Simon le Dun of Derby (1277). Families with Scots associations would probably disclaim Thomas Dun of Elgin as their ancestor since he was hanged in 1296 for stealing valuables from the local church.

While it can be taken that most of the people called "Dunn" (or any of its variations) would have acquired the name through having had a predecessor sporting a swarthy complexion or, possibly a saturnine disposition, some hailing from Scotland can derive their identity from a placename. It should be noted that the presence of "le" (ie. called) in old surnames indicates description, whereas the inclusion of "de" (ie. from) points to a location. And such location in the present Scots example is the place called "Dun". It is still to be found in the County of Angus just off the A935, 4 miles east of Brechin. It is first associated with "Adam de Dun" who was Dean of Moray in 1225. This use of "de" ceased about 1467 in the case of John Dun of Edinburgh. The best-known bearer of the name is John Donne (which we know he pronounced as "dun") and whose dates are 1573-1631. He is classed as a metaphysical poet and gave us the quotes " no man is an island" and "for whom the bell tolls". His family originated in Wales (Radnor) where the form of their name was "Dwnn".

In the matter of descent and association, it is frequently shown through the tagging-on of the old English possessive form which is "-ing". It is frequently found in placenames (eg. Pickering and in surnames such as " Fielding" and "Harding".

In Anglo-Saxon society there was a status-name constructed this way. It was "Atheling" which in modern parlance could be interpreted as " one of US!" The "US" here being the ranks of nobility. A shadowy historical figure is Edgar Atheling who was a "Royal" being the grandson of Edmund Ironside. He has secured a fleeting familiarity from a passing mention in "Alice in Wonderland" (Ch. 3). This unit ("- ing") is also to be found, in a very roundabout way in the title "king".

So the names "Dunning" or "Downing" indicate that the original bearers were identified as belonging, in some way, to the people called "Dunn". At what time the two surnames "Downing" and "Dunning" adopted different pronunciation is not certain although the spelling varied. It must have been the source of some confusion because even as late as 1432, when surnames had become established, the records for Norwich registered the Sheriff as "John Dunning or Downing".

Because of their Anglo-Saxon form, both surnames were in use before the Norman Invasion but records are scanty and the first positive reference to "Dunning" is found in Cambridge for 1166. It is "Gilbertus filius Dunning" which is a rather mixed-up name since it can be interpreted as "Gilbert the son of the descendants of one called Dun". In Yorkshire the first reference to "Downing" is found in the person of "Alice Downynge" (1379).

As in the case of "Dun" it is only in Scotland that a corresponding place-name for "Dunning" is located. It is in Perth on the B934 about 9 miles south-west of Perth. Families of Scots extraction might well look to "Anechol" the Thane of Dunning as their ancestor.

The names are found in various guises in Ireland. In Athlone "Downing" appears as "Dunnin" and as "Dinneen" in Kerry. Families called "Doone" may hope for romantic connections with Exmoor and "Lorna Doone" but caution is advised. The name can be traced to the Gaelic "O Dubhain" (i.e the descendants of the man called Dubhan the "dark one") but examples are hard to verify since it has been inextricably confused with other personal names of the same or similar spelling.

Apart from John Donne already mentioned, there are no well-known personalities bearing the names, except, possibly Joseph Dunninger, who is still greatly admired by conjurors and illusionists.

Otherwise "Downing Street" (Whitehall) is named after Sir George Downing (1623-1684) a government official working for Charles II. Exception might very well be taken to him being identified with this important location because apparently he was far from scrupulous in his diplomatic dealings and the standard biography describes him as "servile, treacherous and avaricious". These are characteristics with which politicians are never associated.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 11th March 2002.

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