HUGHES

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 30th January 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 HUGHES?

The meaning of this name is obvious: "the Son of Hugh". But who was the first "Hugh" and what was so special about him to encourage successive generations of Welshmen to give their boys his name?

There are so many ways to approach this matter that it is difficult to know where to begin. To start with, it may be noted that in the history of names it is not unusual to find that different versions of a particular name eventually blend into one. This is very much the case with "Hugh". It has followed two quite different paths: one, which can conveniently be described as Welsh and would have been written as "Huw"; and another, equally conventiently being referred to as Germanic and appearing as "Hugo". When the name passed into French it took on the form "Hugh" and after the Norman Conquest, the old native version "Huw" was displaced in favour of the French import.

Previously, when "Huw" had only been spoken and rarely written, spelling didn't really come into it, but once the Norman administration was under way, the French-speaking scribes tended to record it in ways already familiar to them, such as "Hugh" and "Hugo" and in so doing obscured its ancient origins.

Both the Welsh and Germans stemmed from an ethnic group called the "Celts". They were once found largely in Central Europe, north of the Alps. The limits imposed upon this feature within the "Peak Advertiser" require a very simplified narrative of what happened. It all began about 3000 years ago. Some Celtic peoples migrated westwards and invaded the British Islands and became identified later as the ancestors of the pre- sent Welsh nation. Another group moved north and from them evolved what can loosely be termed the "Germanic" races.

Naturally they all shared the same language and so it stands to reason that names in Welsh and German can often be traced to a common origin in the Celtic language. Thus it can be assumed that there was a word in Celtic which, in modern lettering, might be reproduced as "Hug" - though exactly how it would have been pronounced must remain problematical.

Research suggests that the final "-g" could have sounded in a gutteral way - something like the "-ch" in the Scots word "loch" or like the Modern Spanish "j". This sound did not exist in French and so when the scribes encountered it in the process of compiling records they tagged on a final "-h" as a sort of guide to pronunciation. The device occurs in other words such as "plough" and "rough".

The precise meaning of "hug" is also vague, but all the evidence points towards its conveying the idea of being clever and resourceful. Hence, as a name, whether "Huw", "Hugo" or "Hugh", it signifies "The Wise One".

History and romance are inextricably tied up when it comes to explaining why the name is so highly esteemed in Wales. Even so, it is accepted that there was a Celtic character called "Huw Gadarn" - "The Mighty Thinker". It is believed that he led his own Celtic tribe across the Channel into Britain and established them in the south. Once there, he got them organised and taught them the arts of civilisation.

His people were very conscious of being a separate and distinct group from the other Celts and for that reason called themselves the "Cymri". This title is made up from two units: "cym-" meaning "united" and "-ri" (a shortened form of their word "brox") meaning "bretheren" or "kinsmen". Hence "Cymbrox" gives "Cymri" and signifies "United Brotherhood". The Romans were later to convert this word into a Latin equivalent, "Cambria" - which persists even today as an academic and poetical alternative for "Wales".

The story of how the Romans later invaded Britain (55 B.C.) and drove the "Cymri" into the western extremities of the island and now known as "Wales" is well known. They resisted integration with Rome and fiercely sought to defend their national identity and culture. One of the ways towards doing this was by perpetuating the memory of their hero Huw Gadarn and adopting his name so extensively. This history was scarcely, if at all, known to the Normans when they were eventually to encounter "Huw" and they simply recorded it as "Hugo" or "Hugh". The form "Hugh" tended to prevail over "Hugo" and it has persisted until comparatively recent times when Welsh traditions are now being actively revived and promoted.

Otherwise, for the rest of the British Isles and across Europe the name has always been popular, although it never attained the mystique it enjoyed among our Cambrian neighbours. While the local directories contain barely 350 entries altogether under the name "Hughes", those for North Wales alone exhibit column after column, running in excess of 8000 insertions. That figure could be considerably inflated if one took into account all the alternative versions of the name, such as Huggins, Howkins, Hewling, Fitzhugh etc.

Although it is one of the most widely distributed names in the country and has always been in the "Top Twenty" - certainly since 1853 - yet curiously enough there has never been any really outstanding personality called "Hughes" - that is no "headline hitter". Thomas Hughes (1822-1896) might formerly have been acclaimed as being the author of the once- admired but now unreadable story called "Tom Brown's School Days" (1857). In fact France is able to claim two celebrities under the French equivalents: Victor Hugo (1802-1885) the author of "Notre Dame" (Quasimodo) and "Les Miserables"; and also Charles Gounod (1818-1893) (a surprising permutation!) the composer of "Faust" and "Ave Maria".

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 30th January 1995.

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