NORTH

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 2nd September 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 NORTH?

There's a story that not so very long ago a teacher working in south east England was offered a much better job - a Senior Appointment in a highly regarded School with excellent teaching facilities and more money. Yet he wouldn't even look at it! Why? Because it was "in the North of England and they're just not civilised up there." (Actual quote!)

The place was in Liverpool and if one looks at a map of the British Isles, it is actually almost Central. Still, this particular Teacher hailed from Canterbury so it may be supposed that anything beyond Watford was a howling wilderness! Even so, just exactly what is meant by "The North"? And why is it viewed askance by Southerners?

There is clearly no satisfactory definition of "North". Corresponding expressions like "the Midlands" and "the Borders" cannot be defined with precision. Hence, in the name "North" there can be no certainty. In the absence of family traditions, let alone precise records, people bearing this surname could have inherited it either from an ancestor who migrated south or from a predecessor who dwelt at the northern end of the village.

The concept of "Northerness" is not exclusive to Britain. It was very strong in Ireland and a great many people whose name is "North" might very well be able to point to Hibernian ancestry. In Ireland, the expression "North" refers to Ulster. For that place, the root word seems to be the Gaelic term "Ulad" but exactly what it means is uncertain. However people who lived there liked to describe themselves as "Ulstermen" and in the old records there appears the expression "Ultaigh" which signifies "Man of Ulster" and this generated the surname "Mac an Ultaigh" or "Son of the Man of Ulster".

Under an oppressive English Law, the use of native Irish surnames was prohibited and so those who bore this name substituted "North" for "Ulster" - i.e. "Men from the North". At the beginning of this Century there was a revival of Gaelic names and "Mac an Ultaigh" was rendered as "McNulty" - of which there is a fair number in the local Directories.

On a more localised level, the name could have been conferred collectively upon a family or a group which occupied a site, which, from its position, was identified as being "to the north" of somewhere else. It could have been on the northern bank of a stream or perched on the north-facing slopes of a neighbouring hill. Such surnames are classified as "Field-Names" and they are very widespread. It requires considerable local knowledge to be able postively to identify the exact significance.

The word "North" is extremely old and was so well-established in our latitudes that it has passed into Modern European languages in easily identifiable forms and the Latin equivalent has been by- passed. Hence in French it is "nord" and in Spanish "norte". It is worth noting that our hyperborean predecessors were not aware of the Magnetic North and based their directions on the East-West passage of the Sun. Facing the point where the Sun rose - in the East - the "North" consequently lay to the left. This is, of course, to be contrasted with "right" and among human beings, the use of the right hand prevails.

Through an extension of ideas, anything "right" was correct and in order; Whereas anything "left" was under-handed and to be avoided. The ancient words from which "north" has been derived can be discerned in the word "neath" as it occurs in "beneath" and "underneath". This is directly related to expressions such as "Nether Regions" and the "Underworld".

No doubt, with such connotations the North has attracted an aura of mystery. The climatic conditions didn't help! Dante described the lowest depths of Hell as a region of solid ice and it was at the North Pole that "Frankenstein" perished!

Taken on a wider scale, the use of the surname "North" was applicable to anybody who had moved from such remote regions and made a home in the South. And there certainly has been a marked tendency for people to travel in the one direction. Although "South" does occur as a surname, research shows that there are seven times as many people called "North" as compared with other directions. And the movement is recorded quite early. There is an Aylmer dal North found in Suffolk in 1230 and a John de North in London for 1273.

The name is widely distributed across the British Isles and there are no perceptible concentrations in any given areas. The Local Directories list about 100 entries under "North" and related names, such as "Norris" and "Nordman" also appear. There are also a few heading under "Northeast" which is an interesting variation, although it is more than likely to be a misrendering of some Scandinavian compound - possibly "Nordqvist".

It is the family name of the Earls of Guildford of which the name of Lord North is fairly well-known. He was Prime Minister from 1770 to 1782 and was involved in the American Revolution of 1775. John North was a native of Leeds (1842-1896). He became a prosperous industralist and conferred great benefits on his native place. Another John North is tenuously associated with this region. He lived from 1893 to 1968 and was a distinguished engineer in the field of aviation - he designed one of the first passenger planes as early as 1913.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 2nd September 1995.

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