This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 14th January 2002, 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 TWIGG?

Many of the surnames borne by families, not only in these islands but also on the continent, originated such as colour (Whitehead), physical characteristics (Armstrong) and demeanour (Smart). Instances of the practice can even be found in the ancient world. The real name of one Roman emperor was Gaius Caesar (37-41 AD.) but because he had always been reared among soldiers he preferred to wear types of military footwear called "caligulae" and for which he acquired the nick-name "Caligula". And the austere personality of Tolstoy is somewhat diminished since his name would be akin to the schoolboys' use of names such as "Fatso" or "Tubby".

Nick-names lend themselves to extensive classification and "Twigg" belongs to that group which describes a person's physique - and among which may be mentioned "Spriggs" and "Spires" - both local. Variations in the spelling do not materially affect the meaning: "Twiggs" or "Twigges" can be interpreted as "the child of the man known as Twig" and "Twigson" is "Twig's boy" while "Twigman" could signify "a servant of a master called Twigg". Here it should be noted that although the name is so well-known in this area, it is not special to Derbyshire. If anywhere, the name appears to belong generally to the north of England and over into East Anglia.

The distribution may be significant because it corresponds with that region over which the Norse invaders extended their influence and introduced their language. Hence it is suggested that the expression "twig" could be derived from an old Danish dialect form "tveg". Should this surmise be mistaken then it would be difficult to explain how the word entered the language. If it had been derived from related terms in other North European languages it ought to have evolved as "twitch". It might be noted that a comparable word "switch" actually refers to a short stick. Note also that "twitch" meaning to "tug" comes from another source and does not occur before the 16th century.

Because the bifurcated branch of a tree bears a fanciful resemblance to the body and especially the two legs of a human being, it is very likely that one of the forms of the Old English word for "two" might have had some influence in the formation of "twig". It should be noted that the language at the time had several ways of expressing "two" and in this instance it was "twegan". This formation has gone on only to give us the word "twain". All other words involving the concept of "two" are derived from another construction of the numeral which was "twa".

Nowadays, while "twig" is employed to describe the smallest units of a tree and "sprig" appears largely to have been taken over by flower-arrangers, it seems our medieval ancestors thought of "twigs" as being somewhat more sturdy and applied it in contexts where we would now say "bough". So in an old translation of the New Testament (950 A.D.) where the words occur, "I am the vine ye are the branches", (St. John: XV-5) and similarly in the description of the entry into Jerusalem (Mark: XI-8) where the crowds are said to have "cut down branches of trees", the same word "twiggo" is used. Later, in 1300 an historical narrative describes the approach of a man bearing an olive branch - "a small twige in his hondes bereinde of olive". So it is reasonable to surmise that a fairly tall and slender individual could have been likened unto a branch cut from a tree of which the main stem related to his torso and the two off-shoots, his legs - think of a letter 'Y' upside down or a traditional divining-rod. No doubt the more lanky members of the community with less athletic figures were given less flattering names.

This practice of conferring nick-names had been long established - in fact nick-names are found several centuries before they were ever designated as such. It is derived from a very old word which was known and used by King Alfred (871-899) and took the form "eke". It means "to tag on" and so, literally an "eke-name" was a "tag-on" or a "label". Such a description was useful in distinguishing neighbours who probably bore the same personal name from one another in small communities. Incidentally the term "nick-name" reveals a development in our language whereby the "-n" of the indefinite article "an" was attracted to a following word. So it was originally "an eke-name" but became "a nick-name". (Similarly "an ewt" became "a newt").

In passing, the old words "twig" and "twigger" were certainly used to describe a man who was promiscuous but in that sense it did not enter the language until late in the 16th century and long after surnames had become established.

An old English personal name, "Twicga" has been traced and is believed to lie behind such place-names as "Twigmore" in Lincoln and "Twigworth" in Gloucester. Note: "Twig's Plantation" near Wirksworth is a modern use and is apparently named after a Henry Twigge (1610).

The earliest record dates from 1296 and is to a "John Twyg" of Chester. The name has made its way across the Atlantic. Historians of the Mexican War of 1846-48 encounter a certain Brigadier General D.E. Twiggs in the account of the Battles of Cerro Gordo (near Vera Cruz). There is also a "Twiggs County" in the state of Georgia.

Here in Matlock the name is well-known not only on account of the engineering establishment but also in the person of our own Gary Twigg, the milkman.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 14th January 2002.

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