This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 9th May 1994, 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 CLARKE?

This is a professional name - that is to say, the original bearers were - "clerks". Vocational names are very widespread - of which "Smith" stands easily the first. This is not surprising because in early settlements there was always a "smith" and a "baker" and a "miller". Those who followed such occupations would eventually adopt them as their surnames. Since there was very much of a tendency for these and other basic trades to remain in families, the bits tagged-on, such as "-son" were rarely needed. For example, in the local directories there are nearly 5,000 Smiths yet only a handful under "Smithson".

Very much the same applies to "Clarke". Every village would have had its Church and to every Church there would be attached a "clerk". Similarly as in the case of the trades just mentioned, the job would pass from father to son. Hence, while there are nearly 1,000 entries against "Clarke", there are about a dozen for "Clarkson".

Of course we all know what work would have been carried on by the ancestors of our "Smiths", "Bakers" and "Millers". But what did a "clerk" do - especially in the Middle Ages when there would have been very little call for the sort of secretarial work and accountancy which we associate with a "clerk" today. Furthermore, if a "clerk" was involved with the village church, and in the Catholic Church no Minister is permitted to marry, then how could the name have been passed down a family?

The fact is that although "clerks" certainly performed religious duties they were not in "Full Orders" but only in what are termed "Minor Orders". One of their specified duties was to assist at services and to read out appointed passages from the Bible and, when required, Edicts and Proclamations. This means that a "clerk" was one of the limited number of persons of the time who could read and write. And: although the Church fostered scholarship and learning, not every fully ordained priest was able to read! Even upper clergy, such as the Bishop of Durham (1316), could not read nor understand the Latin of services they were supposed to conduct! So the ability to read and write became closely identified with "clerks" and from thence took on all its extended meanings.

Strangely enough, there is some uncertainty as to how the word "clerk" came into being. Like "cleric" and "clergy" it can be traced to a Greek root-word "kleros" - for which the best modern equivalent could be "heritage". It seems that Priests were assumed to have no interest in worldly goods. Their only possession (i.e. their "heritage") was their vocation: see Deuteronomy XVIII:2.

The pronunciation of "clerk" is reproduced in the spelling of "Clarke". This is because in the old Home Counties dialect, the sound "err" modified to "ah" - as in "sergeant" and "Hertford", and this pronunciation prevailed. But the correct sound still exists in "clergy" and "cleric"; and in North America "clerk" still rhymes with "work".

Under the influence of the "ah" pronunciation, former writers, including Shakespeare, tended to spell it "clerk", but the "professionals" wanted to show off their Latin and reverted to "clerk" and by so doing, set up a conflict between how it was written and how it was said! A slightly similar development occurs in the case of the name: "Taylor" - which is the old spelling of both trade and surname; and "tailor" which the professionals later insisted upon to show it came from the French "tailler" - to cut.

People whose ancestors followed the occupation of "clerk" and who came from the Continent - possibly as Law Court officials or in Norman households, at the time of the Conquest, sometimes reveal this in their names being "Leclerc" or "Declerk". It is suggested that the Victorian attitude of the "white-collar-clerks" towards the "blue-collared- workers" brought upon them the charge that they fancied themselves as "Gentry" (see "Diary of a Nobody - 6th and 7th April). It is not difficult, then, to see why so many men, particularly in the Armed Services, if called "Clarke" invariably attract the nickname - conferred in good-humour, naturally -, of "Nobby Clarke".

Otherwise, except in the case of the ill-fated Jeremiah Clarke (1669-1709) who wrote the ever-popular "Trumpet Voluntary", although the name Clarke, with its few variations - which are not significant - is one of the most widely distributed names in the British-speaking world, only a few have secured entries in the reference books, and none became a household name.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 9th May 1994.

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