This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 21st March 1994, 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 ROBINSON?

At first sight it would seem that once you have explained that "Robinson" means the "son of Robin" then there isn't much more to tell. Far from it! Ask the question "Who was 'Robin'?" Then we're Goff!

Romantically-minded people, especially if they are associated with Nottingham, would like to believe that the "Robin" from whom they get their name was the famous outlaw. It's a harmless notion but since his very existence is now doubted, it can't be supported.

"Robin" is really a petform of "Robert". It was also shortened to "Rob" and that version is very popular among the Scots - "Rob Roy" and "Rabbie Burns". The unit "-in" is what is called a "diminutive suffix" and when tagged on to a name signifies "the little one" - hence "Robin" means "little Robert". In fact both Robert and Robin were so extremely popular that they ran side by side and, as early as the 14th century, there was a saying: "Now I am Robert, now I am Robin". Robin first appears on a Register in Cambridge for 1273.

The way we now call the pretty little garden bird illustrates the popularity of the name. The old term for the creature was "Ruddock" (from the root word for "Red", giving, for example "ruddy" and its application to the bird is obvious). For a while it attracted the affectionate designation "Robin Ruddock" (compare "Jenny Wren") and later the "Ruddock" was dropped and the bird was specifically identified as the "Robin" and the "nick-name" element in it forgotten. Hence "Robin Hood" did not get his name after the bird but the other way round! The additional term "Red-Breast" came later, about 1400.

The base-name "Robert" is derived from the Teutonic "Hrodebert" which is built up from "hrothi" (fame) and "berhta" (bright). In Latin it was rendered as "Robertus" and as such appears in the Domesday Book. In modern parlance the name would signify "He's got a good reputation".

Whatever deeds the first bearers of the name performed for their tribes are lost in the mists of time but obviously their descendants were proud to be identified either as their sons (Robertson) or in some other way associated with them (Roberts).

Among Germanic speakers the form "Hrodebert" modified into Rupert but that form never appealed, to the English. It is not unfamiliar - who doesn't love the little brown bear from Nutwood? - but whereas "Robert" has always been in the "Top Twenty" since records began, "Rupert" remains unlisted. Very few surnames are derived directly from it - none appears in the local directories.

This is definitely not the case with "Robert". Apart from being the source of the designation of the well-known garden bird, it has yielded also "Dobbin" an affectionate name for a carthorse. From that source have sprung the names Dobbs, Dobson and Dobbie. Similar paths can be traced back to it with regard to the surnames Hobbs, Hopkins and Hobson.

Sometimes "Robinson" follows a slightly different route. Domestic servants and workers on estates often took the name of their employer and were known as "so-and-so's man". A comprehensive record compiled in 1379 includes references to "Robin's man" and this could have modified later into "Robinson".

Very slender indeed is any connection with the Anglo-Saxon word "Hreod" meaning "reed". It is just possible that this could have furnished the basis for an occupation or a location name which became confused with "Robson" but it is doubtful.

In a very few exceptional cases and occurring much later in time and with documentary support, the lame can be shown to have developed from the "Rabbi's son". It would have peen assumed or conferred among families of Jewish immigrants from Central Europe.

It is among the most widely distributed names in the British Isles. The local directories include over 1,000 entries under Robinson alone, never mind all the other parellel derivatives based on "Robert". A popular song of the 1930's refers to "Smith, Jones, Robinson and Brown" as typifying the "happy British workers". It is the surname of two titled families: The Earls of Ripon and the Barons of Rokeby - which is in Ireland, not Scotland as admirers of Sir Walter Scott might think!

Because of its wide distribution it has lent itself to the process known as "double-barrelling". Many "Robinsons" have a natural wish to be more individual and add another unit so as to distinguish themselves from the other bearers of the name. Hence we find Robinson-Montagu and Robinson-Morris. The actor, Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson provides another illustration of the point.

It would be tedious to catalogue the 30 or so names and surnames which "Robert" has generated. We all admire the comic talent of the artist Heath Robinson; "Robinson Crusoe" (1719) speaks for itself. Older readers will remember that wonderful voice belonging to Paul Robson; the jolly Music Hall star, George Robey; and General Roberts (First World War). Hobart is the capital of Tasmania - named after a now forgotten politician. Dobbs Ferry is a well-known New York landmark. The celebrated thinker, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is closely identified with Derbyshire and wrote a still admired poem in praise of the beauties of the Peak. His philosophy tells us that life is "poor, nasty, brutish and short" but whether that's fact or opinion is not for the "Peak Advertiser" to say!

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 21st March 1994.

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