This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 25th September 2000, 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 WATSON?

There are many variations on this name but they all stem from the personal name "Walter", or, more frequently, from its abbreviated form "Ate". It is of Germanic origin and combines two words: "volk" and "heer". The first can still be found in current German as "walten" and means "to govern". The second unit is rather less frequent and describes an armed force in much the same (slightly archaic) way as in the English expressions "host" or "horde". Putting the two items together "Walter" may be deemed to signify "He who leads the Warriors" or, perhaps, "The Commander of the Community".

It had already been established in these islands some time before the Invasion (1066) as "Wealdhere". When the Normans took over it was displaced by "Walter". This name was hugely popular with them and is recorded as early as 1060. It refers to the Abbot of St. Martin's at Pontoise (20 miles north-west of Paris). As St. Walter he is commemorated locally on 8th April.

It may be noted, in passing that the letter "W" did not exist in the Latin alphabet and the nearest approximation to its sound which the medieval scribes could secure was, by combining "g" with "u" which when pronounced certainly produces a sound which will pass as "w". (It is still employed in words of foreign origin such as "guava"). In English this stratagem has led to the duplication of words such as "guard/ward" and "guarantee/warranty".

So in early medieval Latin texts we encounter both "Gualterius" and "Walterius" and furthermore, in languages derived directly, from Latin, the name takes forms such as "Gautier" (French), "Gualtiero" (Italian) and "Gualterio" (Spanish). The Gaelic equivalent is "Uaiteir", the Welsh, "Gwalter" and the Irish "Ualtair". (Sometimes the Irish used "Qualter").

A more intriguing development in the pronunciation of the name revolved around the letter -l-. This is sometimes present in spelling, but silent in speech, and other times given its full value. The reason is that the consonaut "l" can be sounded by placing the tip of the tongue behind either the upper or lower teeth-ridge. Although the tip, wherever positioned remains fixed, the rest of the tongue can be manoeuvred considerably according to what vowels precede or follow. There is, for example, a subtle difference between the first and final letters of "Liverpool".

This factor has had the effect of being able to eliminate the sound so absolutely, that although it remains in writing, it is not pronounced in words such as "talk" and "half". (Note the effect in "yolk" and "yellow" - both related expressions). This certainly shows up in the progress of "Walter" which, in the Anglo-Saxon community had been pronounced as "water" and was, apparently, accepted generally, by the Normans.

The point is very graphically illustrated by Shakespeare in "Henry VI, Part II" (Act IV, Sc.i) There the Duke of Suffolk, when attacked by Walter Whitmore, reveals that a fortune-teller had predicted that he should die "by water" and which he always interpreted as being drowned. Apparently the fortune-teller had hedged his bets behind the ambiguity of the pronunciation and his prophecy could just as well have meant "at the hands of a man called Walter" - which is, in fact, exactly what took place.

When the change of sound from "Water" to "Walter" finally took place, cannot, of course be pin-pointed, but it seemed to have extended from the 17th to the 18th centuries.

As the present feature is directed to forms of the surname derived from the vernacular pronunciation of "Walter" (i.e. "warter") it should first be noted that the representative name is "Water" but this is rarely encountered, whereas forms signifying "son of Walter" etc. are widespread, as "Waters", "Waterson" etc. What is far more evident is that the personal name was invariably shortened to "Wat", "Watty" etc. and generated innumerable surnames. The "son of Wat" becomes "Watts" or "Watson", the "child of Wat" is "Watkins" or "Watkyns" and even the "child of the son of Wat" is "Watkinson" (very common in Lancashire). A Welsh form is "Gwatkins" and in Scotland we find "McWatters".

It would be impossible to describe the hundred or more personalities who are mentioned in the standard references and who bear surnames derived from this source. Obviously Dr. Watson, the supposed crony of Sherlock Holmes comes readily to mind. But then there is James Watt of the steam engine, Isaac Watts, the hymn writer ("O God our Help in Ages Past") and George Watts the artist whose picture of "Hope" still graces many living-rooms. Dickens introduces the surnames "Watty" (Pickwick Papers - Ch.31) and "Watkins" (Magic Fishbone - a child's story).

The earliest mention of the name as "Watson" is found in Wakefield (West Riding) for Richard Watson, 1324. An interesting allusion is found in Scotland to Sir Donaldus Walteri (1493) who in a later document is called Sir Donald Watsone (1612). Locally Henry Watson of Bakewell invented a machine for cutting and polishing marble and established his workshop in Ashford in 1748 and made a speciality of producing articles embellished with beautifully coloured and assembled patterns in marble.

There are well over 400 entries under "Watson" in the local directory, and the "Peak Advertiser" is pleased to make mention of our own Wendy Watson from Over Haddon. She is the leading lady with the Matlock Operatic Society, she can often be heard singing at many events in the area and runs the National Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline from her home.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 25th September 2000.

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