GILL

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 4th November 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 GILL?
(Part One)

A reader in Tideswell asks about this name.

It is willingly conceded that this name is difficult to analyse. However one relevant point can be dealt with immediately. It is not related to the expression 'Farmer Giles' who is traditionally regarded as the typical British agriculturalist. The use of that name dates only from 1800. A minor poet, Robert Bloomfield (1766-1823) composed a poem called 'The Farmer's Boy' - the boy being called 'Giles'. The work, greatly admired at the time, is now forgotten but the name 'Giles' has stuck.

Next: How is it pronounced? In most cases with a hard 'G-' as in 'got'. Names spoken thus will be discussed here. Those sounding as 'Jill' have a very complicated history and must be deferred until the next issue.

Bearers of the name in Derbyshire might be justifiably tempted to think that it was related in some way to a form of measure used for tin. An old commentary relating to tin-mining certainly says: "They measure Tynne by the Gill, Toplippe, Dish and Foote". However the first instance in print dates from 1602 and while no doubt the expression might have been used by miners long before that date, it is difficult to see how it could have insinuated its way into a surname. The pronunciation also tells against it.

The most assured of all derivations is that 'Gill' is an adaptation of an early English expression which signified 'a young boy' involving the sense of 'a boy about the place hired for general duties'. It is still detectable in 'pageboy', 'bellboy' etc. It then later took on an extended meaning as a 'servant' and evolved then as both an occupational and a personal name. It still survives in current Scots as 'gillie' and the earliest recorded forms otherwise are 'Gilla' (old Irish) and 'Gilli' (old Norse). Beyond that, its ultimate source is unknown. The first naming appears in Yorkshire (1185) for Garnet filius Gille. It was adopted into many surnames with the meaning 'servant of-' such as 'Gillespie' which takes the Latin form 'episcopus' (bishop) and yields `Servant of the Bishop'. Religious names abound, as Gilies (Jesus) Gilchrist (Christ) Gilmore (Mary) and Gilmartin (Martin). Because our own region became under the influence of Scandinavian incursions, the form 'gilli' is very likely to have been the source of the surname in many cases.

However one has only to travel to the North-Western areas and there one will find that a different explanation may hold. Here the word 'gill' is still in dialect use and describes a ravine, which is a deep wooded valley with a stream. The derivation of the word is curious. It is claimed to have come from an Old Norse expression 'gjolnar' which refers to the gills of fishes. Apparently our Northern ancestors detected a fanciful resemblance between the organs of breathing in fishes and a deep ravine. The point is not convincingly settled.

Although these declivities are a familiar characteristic of the landscape of the north-western counties and the Ridings of Yorkshire, very few bear names which are known much beyond the immediate vicinity. This is hardly surprising because gills did not lend themselves to extensive development: space is restricted and access difficult. Even today there are only a few places which have attained a status beyond that of a hamlet. An eminent authority on English place-names states that 'gill' is largely found in neighbourhood names and can list barely half-a-dozen which attained any size. The early inhabitants would have been known in the district a 'the folk who live in't gill' and if a man moved away to seek a living elsewhere in the area, he would have been identified as 'him from the gill' which eventually gave rise to the surname 'gill'.

So, unless families called 'Gill' can point specifically to the place associated with their predecessors, they could have emanated from any of the numerous deep valleys which abound in the region. In Scotland there is a reference to a Patrick del Gyle (1296) which is interpreted as 'Patrick of the Ravine'. Its site can no longer be pin-pointed but it is believed to be in the County of Peebles. On top of that, the name itself is regarded as an import from Cumberland. In England the earliest reference is to an Elias de la Gyle (Yorkshire: 1269). Of extended surnames possibly Ramskill (ie. Ramsgill) near Pateley Bridge and Scargill (near Barnard Castle) are certainly familiar.

It is interesting to note that the spelling 'Ghyll' is not authentic. It was contrived by the poet Wordsworth in 1787.

To be continued...

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 4th November 2002.
Are you called GILL?
(Part Two)

Our medieval ancestors were as much given to using pet or family names as we are. Examples: Tony for Anthony; Betty for Elizabeth. Technically they are called "hypocorisms". Sometimes they evolved into surnames: Henry James (novelist), Augustus John (artist) for instance. But some of the medieval hypocorisms are difficult and frequently impossible to relate to any personal name and when such forms have been adopted as surnames, there are problems.

This is the case with "Gill". If bearers of the name pronounce it with a soft "G-" then it may be suggested that it is derived from one of the numerous hypocorisms for "Julian" or "Giles". But if with a hard "G-" then, discounting the alternatives previously discussed in the preceding issue of the "Advertiser" it could be "William".

The personal name "Julian" was susceptible to innumerable hypocorisms which it would be tedious to list either exhaustively or conclusively. The name itself was inherited from the late Latin "Julianus" which had itself been constructed on the classical name "Julius". The meaning is obscure. It is curious that although the name had unpleasing associations, it still stood high. After all the celebrated Julius Caesar was assassinated: Didius Julianus was the unfortunate bidder when the world was put up for auction (A.D. 92): the Emperor Julain (331-363) distrusted the narrow dogmatism of the early Christian church and actively encouraged liberal and eclectic thought: ever after he was spitefully dubbed "the apostate". However, these reputations were probably counterbalanced from the name also being identifiable with several minor saints and holy men - amongst whom Julian the Hospitaller stood very high. He regularly features in medieval art and was a patron of travellers and inn-keepers. The fact that many churches and hospitals were dedicated to him demonstrates the popularity of the name.

"Julian" was both a boy's and girl's name - vide St. Julian of Norwich (1342-1413) a female recluse in whose life and religious writings ever-increasing interest is still being shown. (Note: the specifically feminine "Gillian" only emerged in the 1500s.) At this point it may be relevant to draw attention to the fact that scribes in the Middle Ages relied on an alphabet which they inherited from Latin and in which the letter "j" was not present. It was invariably represented by "I" - hence "Jesus" is often seen in art as "IESVS" (there was no "u" as we know it as well!) The initial "I" frequently modulated into "G". Thus in Italian "Julian" becomes "Guiliano" whereas in southern Italy, "Iuliano". The linguistic manoeuvres are too complicated to be described briefly. It is suggested that may have been involved in the transitions to "Gill". A few variations may be mentioned: Julyan, Jolanus, Jollan, Jellin, Jull, Joll etc. As a first name "Giles" was less popular and only recorded before the close of the 14th century, when our first astronomer is mentioned, Giles of St. Albans. The origins of the name are confused, but, briefly are based on Germanic words signifying "worthiness". They gave rise to such names as Gisel, Gilo, Ghilo - all recorded before Domesday (1086).

It seems that when the Norman scribes tried to Latinise these forms, they appear to have compounded them with "Egidus" which was the name of a 7th-century hermit in Provence and whose name was thus, it is suggested, back-translated into Giles. This "Giles" is an authenticated personage, leading a life of exemplary holiness and to whom miraculous healing powers attributed - especially with the disabled. He was adopted patron saint of Edinburgh, to whose cathedral as well as some 162 country-wide parish churches are dedicated. Possibly because he was the patron of cripples and beggars, there was diffidence in taking his name in baptism and it was not as popular as might be imagined among the English.

Finally: "Gill" pronounced with a hard "G-"? Of which name might it be a hypocorism? Surprisingly it is "William"! This was not a native English name. It had been introduced into the community by the Normans who in turn had borrowed it from the German "Wilhelm" (interpreted as: he who is armed with the will to succeed.) As previously observed, Norman-French was derived from Latin and as with other languages from that source had no letter in the alphabet to correspond with "W-". The Normans sought to approximate it through combining it with "G-" giving "Go-" and rendering "William" as "Guillaume" (compare Spanish; Guillermo, they pronounced it as "geeyom"). Although the name was strongly identified with the hated invader, William I (the Conqueror) it nevertheless became one of the most popular of boys' names until the 13th century, when it was overtaken by John. Of course it had innumerable variations, particularly Gilot (1292) and Guylote (1319). Note: "Bill" was not used as a hypocorism during the Middle Ages and so the surname "Bill" is not involved.

Without doubt the name most appreciated by our male readership may be brought on stage and diffidently presented as an example of a derived surname. A feminine form of "Gill" was "Gillet" which modified to "Gillette" and was borne by the American inventor King Gillette (1855-1932) who conferred upon half the population of the civilised world the blessings of the safety razor.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 18th November 2002.

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