GEOFFREY or JEFFERY

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 23rd February 2004, 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 GEOFFREY or JEFFERY?

Interchange between personal names and surnames is not uncommon; Darrell for instance is now a popular boy's name but it originates in a surname first recorded 800 years ago. Reversing the process, well established first names such as Martin or James can be quoted. However Geoffrey and Jeffery (both are historically identical) are something of a puzzle. While both are frequently found as personal names, only Jeffey has passed into being a current surname. In the Standard Biography, Geoffrey is not cited as a surname. In the Local Directory some 200 entries based on Jeffery are to be seen, but of Geoffrey - not one! When Geoffrey discontinued to be a type of surname is obscure, but its absence was already noted during the 19th Century among the early systematic researchers.

Modern scholarship is agreed that the point of origin of either form of the name lies in the personal name Godfrey. Expressed simply the name appears to be an indeterminate mixture of several Germanic names, such as Galfridus or Gaufridus and that they have all become confused, one with the other and that the somewhat hybrid Godfrey has evolved.

It would be useful if we knew today how our ancestors pronounced words. This is very much the case with Godfrey. There is such a bewildering variety of surnames constructed upon it that any attempt to explain developments can be no more than inspired guess-work.

Several influences are discernible. First: in Old English the initial "G" of Godfrey would certainly have been pronounced as in the word "go". This appears to be supported by reference to forms of the name which were Latinised in learned or official writings: viz. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the celebrated Medieval Chronicler, otherwise named as Gaufridus Monemutensis. But secondly it should be noted that the name was introduced into this Island by the Normans who used French pronunciation. This involved the letter "G" being given a sound like the "Z" in azure. A third influence was that words imported from Latin and some other sources and with a middle consonant - (d and t especially) lost that letter: hence Latin "Pater" became "Père" and "Debitus" - dette. Supplementing this tendency, the English were prone to using what is called "the glottal stop." This occurs often. A standard example is "bread and butter" which is sounded as "brenn'n buh". Running all these elements together it may be surmised that the name Godrey lost the middle "d" and also took on the sound of the French "G".

This resulted in "Goffrey" which was pronounced as if written "Zhofrey". Creditability for this notion is afforded by reference to the surname still in French use:- Joffre and the equivalent for "Geoffrey" in that language which is "Geoffrei" (pronounced "Zhoffree").

However this still leaves the question: How did the "G" in Godfrey become the "J" in corresponding names?

The most plausible suggestion seems to be that it results in a confusion of the letter "G" with the letter "J". This letter was introduced into the alphabet at a later date. For reasons which would take up too much space to expound, it needed to be distinguished from "I". To do this it was written to fall below the line of writing and with a left-hand curly flourish.

This caused problems for scribes who very often had to write along lines which were very close together. This compelled them to contrive a form of the letter, rather squashed-up and somewhat resembling the standard capital "G". These two forms were easily mistaken one for the other and the mistake is still perpetuated in the completely irrational forms of "Gaol" and "Jail". It is significant that whereas "Jeffery" has expanded into countless forms which signify parentage such as Jefferies and Jefferson or which imply being a small child such as Jeffcote ("little Jeff'), they are noticeably lacking in the case of "Geoffrey".

To conclude it may be mentioned that while the form of the personal name is preferred as "Geoffrey" in Britain, the spelling "Jeffery" is popular in the States. This arises from the admiration still accorded to the American Statesman Thomas Jefferson, Third President (1801-1809) who was responsible for the text the Declaration of Independence. Probably that might very well account for the fact that "Jeffery" has long remained in the "Top 50" names for boys of America, whereas "Geoffrey" is not included at all.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 23rd February 2004.

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