STEPHENSON

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 18th 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 STEPHENSON?

Government by the People for the People - that is to say, a Democracy - attained almost perfection in Classical Greece. For that reason the Greeks did not admire the concept of royalty and certainly none of its trappings. This was especially so with regard to Crowns. The nearest thing they ever devised was a sort of head- dress called a "stephane" and which consisted merely of a band of metal worn over the forehead somewhat like the tiara worn by the Pantomine Dame when "she comes into money"! It is often seen on statues and other representations of Goddesses.

The thinking was that because of their Divinity, such a form of adornment was quite in order, whereas ordinary mortals had to make do with a simple fillet or band tied round the head. However athletes who performed exceptionally well in contests (to which the Greeks attached tremendous importance) were awarded a plain wreath made of laurel leaves, usually gathered from a sacred grove.

It was called a "stephanos" and both words are related to another Greek expression, "stephein" which means, appropriately enough, "to encircle" or "to go around". Taken literally "stephanos" means "a crown" or "a wreath" but as a boy's name it has been extended to signify "he who wears a crown".

At this point some Readers may protest: "You are referring to that form of the name as spelled "-ph"! What about the version spelled as "Steven"? And to that the answer is quite simple. It dosen't make any difference. The forms "-ph-" and "-v-" are interchangeable.

We are so accustomed nowadays to pronouncing the combination "-ph-" as if it were "-f-" that we have lost sight of the fact that in the original Greek the two letters were pronounced separately and corresponded, more or less, with the sounds we utter when we say, for example "up-hill".

In the Greek Alphabet this utterance was combined in a single letter called "phi". The Romans hadn't got such a symbol among their characters and substituted there own "p" plus "h" which, at first they also pronounced as two separate sounds. Later they modified them into something like our "f" and when a name like "Stephen" was taken over by later languages, it was altered to suit. Hence in the Domesday Book (1088) we encounter "Stefanus".

It is worth noting that in English the sound "f" often modulates down to "v" as well. This can be seen in certain contexts as when "half' and "life" become "halves" and "lives". In some cases it actually disappears as in "laf-dy" (i.e. "loaf-maker") becomes "lady".

Nevertheless, however they chose to write and spell the name, it was extremely popular among our ancestors. Its significance lay in that it was borne by an Early Christian whose story can be read in the New Testament (Acts: Ch. 7.) On the evidence there provided, the Church claimed that he was the first person to die for the Christian Faith and accorded him the distinction of being commemorated on the day first after Christmas - 26th December, "On the Feast of Stephen" as the Carol says.

Ever since records were compiled the name "Stephen" has always been in the "Top Twenty" and indeed in 1975 it held first place. Strangely enough though, after that date the "-v-" spelling seems to have taken over and now prevails.

Numerous versions appear in the Medieval Registers: Robert Stevene and Esteven Wallays (Wallace?) to name but only two. As might be expected, therefore, "Stephen" or "Steven" have generated many surnames and "Stephenson" is easily identified as "the son of Stephen".

Most of the permutations can be recognised: Steven, Stevens, Steffan and Steverson. A few are less quickly picked out. "Stein" for instance is not invariably Germanic but Scottish, where "Steenie" is to be found as a variation of "Steven".

People in Derbyshire who are called "Stenson" might just as easily have derived their name, not from an ancestor of some form of "Stephen", but from the place south of Derby of that description and which signifies "the settlement which belongs to Steinn" - a personal name, related to "Stone". In Scotland there is to be found "Steven" but this seems to have been concocted by John Stephen of Charlestown (Fife) for reasons best known to himself.

In view of the immense popularity of the name among our predecessors it is not surprising that there is more than the average number of distinguished personalities bearing one of its variations, from George Stephenson (1781-1848) the Railway Engineer, and who is associated locally, having spent his retirement at Tapton House near Chesterfield to Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), the author of "Treasure Island" (1881). Although just about every variation on the name appears in the Local Directories; the form "Stevens" easily out-numbers all the others.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 18th September 1995.

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