This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 19th May 2003, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

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 BRYANT?

The personal name Brian and the dozen or so surnames it has engendered may be conveniently taken together. It is a Celtic name. This is a general designation for that race of people who dwelt in Central Europe about 3000 years ago. They separated from time to time, making incursions all over the continent. They ventured as far as Ireland (c. 350 BC. Naturally, in bringing their own language with them, they included first names, among which "Brian" was one. It is disputed whether it actually took this form: that can only be guessed at from later developments. Such developments relate to what took place (roughly) between the departure of the Romans from Britain and the Norman invasion. Briefly and selectively mention may be made of the setting-up of a trading empire (for want of a better word) by the Vikings of Scandinavia which encompassed the opposite coasts of Ireland and Scotland and extended across the North of England - centred at York. Sharing a common origin with the Irish they adopted and modified related personal names: their form of "Brian" was "Brjan".

These Scandinavians had also established themselves along the channel coast (c. 900 AD) which became known as Normandy - i.e. the land of the North Men. They were especially associated with the Celtic region called Brittany. They allied themselves with William of Normandy and assisted his forces in the conquest of England in 1066. They introduced many Celtic names into Anglo-Saxon society.

An important later development took place when the only Englishmen ever to become Pope (Adrian IV) purported to make a gift of Ireland to the Norman King, Henry II (1154-89). This transaction has never been satisfactorily understood, particularly since the Normans had not previously taken much interest in Ireland. However Henry crossed the sea and so began the process of establishing an English presence in Ireland, and he settled many of his Norman followers there. As many of them were of Breton background and already shared a Celtic heritage with the Irish, many of their names were duplicated and the Breton name "Bryan" ressembled the pure Irish name of "Brian". The two names have subsequently become confused but families with associations in Kilkenny, where the Norman settlers were introduced, may claim ancestry from that source. Descendants of Donogh O'Brian, son of a king of Munster is deemed to be the first bearer of the authentic Irish surname and people with associations which include Tipperary, Waterford and Limerick may claim descent. That surname is said to be the first verifiable instance of such usage.

Now what does "Brian" mean? Because of its introduction in this island from such disparate sources and at varying times, its exact meaning can only be surmised. However the common factor is that of "height". A reasonable interpretation is: "One who shall be looked up to". (Compare the formal: "Your Highness") It was constructed on a Celtic word which passed into Old English as "bre". It occurs in many place-names indicating a hill - eg Breedon-on-the-Hill (an interesting instance where the meaning of the old word was forgotten by later generations and led to the tagging on of "dun" which also meant hill and even later by adding the tautological "on the hill"!). It is near Melbourne.

There is some evidence that the old Celtic word sounded something like "briga" and was adopted by the Romans: "Brigantes" or dwellers in the hills of the North; and the site "Briga" near Ashley in Hampshire. The Germanic "berg" and the Scots "brae" might be related. Here it may be mentioned that whatever spelling the name now takes, it is not significant. However "Brian" with an "-a-' is held to be authentic Irish whereas with an "-e-" (Brien) is Norman-French. This adds a complication because contemporary records in Latin by French speaking scribes tended to render the name uniformly as "Brienus".

Forms of the name were certainly well-established in England even before the invasion. The fact that the name regularly turns up in the Domesday Book, which was compiled shortly after Norman rule began, strongly indicates that it was know to our Anglo-Saxon ancestors. In the south the first mention is to Radulfus Filius Brian (Essex: 1190). Further North there is Brianus Filius Alani (York: 1207). And in Scotland there is Bernard Filius Brien (Arbroath 1190). His name is quoted in connection with the town near Inverkeiller called Bryanton. The Scots consider that here the name came into Scotland from the Normans and was known earlier in other cases but evidence is scanty.

The spelling "Bryant" is not exceptional. In speech an extra "d" or "t" is tagged on to words ending in "n". The word "sound" is an example. In Old English it was simply "son" (c.f. Latin "sonus" and French "son"). Yet by the 16th century it had acquired a final "d". Other words are "ribbands" for "ribbon" and "gownd" for "gown," ("Riband" still is used in connection with trophies - "Blue Riband"). Those who study language development call the process "the excrescent consonant". Sometime, but less accurately "epenthesis".

Of all the bearers of the name, that of Brian Boru (941-1014) stands supreme. He was the first king of all Ireland and out of admiration for his achievements his name has been ever a favourite with the Irish. So much so, that on Brian's banner a harp was displayed and is now the unmistakable symbol for Ireland. The name crossed the Atlantic and William Jenning Bryan (1860-1925) was a well-known American politician. Here, Sir Arthur Bryant (1899-1985) wrote greatly acclaimed historical biographies. On a personal note, mention may be made of J. J. Bryant, a teacher in Merseyside school, a popular and esteemed master, held in great affection by successive generations of pupils going back to the 1930s and include the present writer.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 19th May 2003.

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