THOMPSON

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 14th August 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 THOMPSON?

Thompson is easily identified as the "Son of Thomas" and also that it is taken from the New Testament. The name was borne by one of the Twelve Apostles. He is supposed to have gone forth and preached the Gospel in India. Literally the name means "a twin" and tradition has it that the other was his sister called "Lysia". While some people venerated Thomas for the courage demonstrated in John XI:16, a great many more disapproved of him as "Doubting Thomas" (John XX:24-28).

For that reason it was not at first a favoured name and while a few entries occur in the Domesday Book (1085), it doesn't show up in any earlier baptismal records. However, following the murder of Thomas-a-Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 and his canonisation two years later, the name shot into the "Top Twenty" in the frequency of boy's names and remained there until about 1900, since when it has somewhat declined.

Originally "Thomas" would have been written using Hebrew characters and although it can be converted into something like "TeOma", exactly how it was pronounced is not certain. The unit "Te-" seems to have caused difficulties when the name was transcribed into other alphabets. The nearest the Greeks could get to it was "Th-" for which they used their special symbol "Theta". Probably they spoke the name as "Though-maze".

To describe the successive steps showing how "Te-" took on this form and sound "Th-" would take up far too much space and the "Peak Advertiser" must, apologetically, pass it over. The "TH" did not exist in Latin and they had no letter corresponding with "Theta". So they combined their letters "T" and "H" as a makeshift compromise and simply pronounced them as "T-".

As words passed from Latin into Modern European Languages, works beginning with "Th-" followed different directions. A good example is the Latin word "theatrum" (borrowed from the Greek). Because the "th-" sound already existed in English, it took on the form "theatre" as we now pronounce it, yet in Spanish it was phonetically rendered as "teatro" - whereas the French preserve the Greek spelling with a Latin pronunciation. There is no apparent consistency in English usage - as words like "theory" and "thyme" illustrate.

When it comes to personal names we follow two paths, Official spelling preserve the "Th-" but petforms drop it. So we find "Thomas" and "Theresa" in Class but "Tom" and "Tracy" in the Play- ground. This happens even when the "th-" is given its usual sound, as when "Elizabeth" and "Theodore" become "Betty" and "Ted".

The explanation for the intrusive "p-" in "Thompson". is, happily, quite straightforward. The early scribes noted that whenever the letter "p-" was followed by certain other sounds you just couldn't help shoving in a "p-". So they thought is must be part of the spelling. Try saying "Tom's son" quickly and you'll see what is meant. (see also "Simpson", 27th February 1995).

The popularity of the name "Thomas" after 1170 can be gauged from its being included in the expression: "Every Tom, Dick and Harry" when mention is made of society in general. Strange to say, though, as a familiar name for a cat, it dates from as recently as 1760 and "Tommy" in the Army context was first used in 1883. Obviously the name means "the Son of Thomas" and there are some forty surnames premuting the name. Many are based on "pet-forms" giving us "Tom" and "Tompkin". Names indicating descent were constructed upon all of them, such as "Thompson", "Tompkins" and "Toms". Less easily identifiable with "Thomas" are "Tonks", "Tombs" and "Tonkin". Examples of all these are to be found in the local Directories.

The earliest reference occurs in the Records for Cambridge (1273) where we find, "Eborard, fil Thome". Later (1318) there is a mention of a "John Thomson" and for Whitby (1349) the form "Thompson" is to be found. It is certainly one of the commonest surnames in the United Kingdom and the U.S.A. Even so, it shows a remarkable concentration in the North-East, particularly Northumberland, while it is noticeably less frequent in the South- West. The heavier presence in the North East leads some people to a belief that the name has some Scottish associations but this is not so: in fact the Scottish equivalent is "MacTavish".

It would be tedious to catalogue every form of this surname and there is space only for mentioning a few of the notable persons who have borne any of them. The best-loved is Flora Thompson (1876-1847) who gave us "Lark Rise to Candleford". Previously Brandon Thomas (1849-1914) had created that wonderful character "Charley's Aunt", and even earlier James Thomson (1700-1748) provided us with the words for "Rule-Britannia" - with its oft misquoted line "Britannia! rule the waves!" The American General John T. Thompson (1860-1940) gave his name to the "Tommy Gun" while every Bible student knows about St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and his profound learning known as "Thomism".

In the local directories over 1,000 entries under the name of "Thompson" appear and the promoters of many public events in this locality will have been grateful for the services rendered by the St. John Ambulance Brigade and will have met our Harold Thompson, the Officer-in-Charge for the area.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 14th August 1995.

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