This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 10th August 1998, 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 COX?
(Part One)

Are you called Cox?

Several readers (Great Longstone, Bakewell) have approached the "Peak Advertiser" about this name. As a starter, "Cox" is certainly one of the most widely distributed names in the kingdom - there arc over 500 entries in the local directories.

It is obviously a variation on "Cocks" but its association with that farm-yard creature lies largely within the similarity of sound and spelling. Of the half-dozen or so of accredited sources, only one is immediately identifiable with a Rooster (Inn Sign). The rest are not connected or have only indirect bearings.

Apart from variations such as "Cocke", "Coxe", "Coke" etc. there are innumerable spin-offs by way of "Cookson", "Coxen" and "Coxon" while even further down the line we encounter "Simcock", "Hitchock", "Wilcox" etc. But these forms lie outside the scope of the present feature.

One suggestion is that perhaps "Cox" has something to do with sailing. It is certainly very tempting to look towards such maritime expressions as "Cox" and "Coxswain". The latter generally refers to an ordinary seaman in charge of craft when a superior officer is absent. The former word ("Cox") is its abbreviation and now applies to the steersman of a racing-boat.

The unit "cox" is admittedly built upon "cock" but that word described types of vessel intended to transport goods. They bore a fanciful resemblance to a gigantic barrel (i.e. keg) out of which "cox", "cog" and "cogue" emerged. In English sea-faring vocabulary the world "cock" was gradually extended to ally small ship's-boat. It then doubled up as "cock-boat".

Its application to surnames is however, inconclusive because the dates don't tally. The expression "cockswain" first appears in print in 1463 and "coxswain" not until 1626. And, surprisingly, "cox" with the rowing boat links - not until 1869. These usages just can't be reconciled with the surnames which can be traced centuries earlier. In addition, the names are recorded in places too far inland to have any feasible maritime significance.

Hence, although it is possible for a few localised occupational surnames to have evolved, there is room for doubt.

Another interpretation lies behind the Old English word "cock" which meant "to fight". In an early translation (1300) of the Bible, for example, Psalm 144 which begins, "Blessed be the Lord.,.(who).. teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight" appears as 'Blessid Lauerd… that lernes right Mi hende at cocke and mi fingres at fight".

There is some credibility in the notion that that "cock" in this sense could be related to Old Irish terms such as "cog-aim" meaning, "I fight". As such it might have passed on as a sort of nick-name to members of a community who were quarrelsome and prone to fisticuffs.

People who have Irish connections might care to follow up this lead. But caution is advised. Their name could just as well be an Anglicised rendering of the name "MacQuilley" which in turn was derived from the Gaelic "Mac an Conchiolle" meaning "the son of the Wild Dog". This was later confused with another Gaelic word "coileach" which does, in fact, mean "a cockerel". To assist research it may be mentioned that the name centres on the counties of Monahan, Fermanagh and Roscommon.

Readers who lay claim to Welsh or Cornish ancestry might possible consider whether their name has been derived from "coch" which means "red". No doubt an individual with red or auburn colouring would have been most distinctive amidst a Celtic Community where dark hair was the norm. Its more familiar form is in the surnames "Gough" or "Goff".

While on the subject of foreign names, it should be noted that "Cocks" or "Cox" could have been modified or adopted by immigrants who bore names such as "Kok" (German), "Colt" (Dutch), "Kuchta" (Slovakian), "Coci" (Italian) etc. These modifications are interesting but lie outside the scope of the development of the surnames under discussion, whose sources pre-date them considerably.

Finally an alternative explanation may be sought in the occupational name, "Cook". During the Middle Ages not only was a cook very well-established in great households (ranking second only to "Clerk" in a list of occupational surnames) but also have a very well-recognised place in the community. In Old English the basic word was "coc" which passed through the Medieval Latin "coccus" having been derived from the Classical Latin "coquus".

In ancient Rome a place where ready-cooked food was obtainable was called a "popina" and it had its counter-part in Medieval settlements by way of a "Cook's Shop". Here people could carry their own food to be cooked for them or purchase meals already made-up. It was a desirable arrangement since by concentrating ovens in limited places, the danger of fire was considerably reduced. In a Latin dictionary compiled in 1532 there is to be found this entry:- "Cokes Shope - Popina" or, "Ye Olde Englysshe Tayke-Awaye"!

It certainly generated very early surnames. As far back as 950 we encounter Elfsige ye Coc in Wiltshire. However unless there is some external supporting evidence it is now extremely difficult to determine whether the bearer of the surname of "Cocks" or "Cox" derived his or her name from their occupation. Had it not been for additionally information the surname of Joan Cokes of Sussex, a cook, would have remained as much a mystery as that of Petronilla Cockes of Worcester, although both were recorded in 1327.

To be continued...

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 10th August 1998.

Are you called COX?
(Part Two)

This name has already been the subject of a previous feature wherein several miscellaneous origins were looked into. The discussion now moves on to another source, the old English work "Cocc" which only adds to the difficulties already expressed, in as much as it has it has two distinct meanings. One of them corresponds with the modern word "cock" in the sense of the rooster and the other is a location-name which is no longer in general use.

It is not certain how "cock" (i.e. the bird) entered our vocabulary. The word "coccum" existed in Medieval Latin, but it is actually a reversal of the native expression "cocc" anyway. We know this because early translations of foreign texts rather apologetically run "coccum" alongside the classical Latin equivalent "gallinum". So in a code of laws promulgated round about the year 850 there is mention thus: "si quis coccum aunt gallinam furaverit " (...if anybody shall steal a cock (English word) or a cock (Latin word)...) Suggestions, by the way, that it is derived from the French word "coq" are mistaken because an identical development also took place in that language.

The ultimate origins appear to lie in the Slavonic term "kokotu" which itself comes from the Sanskrit "kukkuta" which is undoubtedly an attempt to name the creature after the sound it makes, It is interesting to note that the same thinking probably influenced the Malaysians in naming their native bird, the Cockatoo, which in their language appears more or less as "Kaketoe".

The next point to be taken is the use of bird names when referring to or addressing people. Throughout the Midlands, the expressions, "Me Duck" is frequently heard. In Scotland and parts of the North, "Hen" may be heard as a term of endearment and also as a genial description of women in general - hence "a Hen Night" at the club.

Further south, the Londoner's "Wotcha Cock!" has now extended across the entire english speaking world. In the early years of the present century there was a vogue for referring to the children of one's family as "the chicks" while "Dove" is met with occasionally, but it seems rather dated now (vide "Oliver Twist", Ch.27).

Much less common is "sparrow" - as when Shakespeare makes a character say "My sweet delight, my sparrow" (Timon of Athens). In the Middle Ages the word "Cock" was so extensively used that it almost attained the status of a baptismal name. The earliest is Koc, son of Pertuin (Lincoln: 1230), and mention may be made of Coc of Shrewsbury (1273) and Kok Forester from Sussex (1296). In 1429 Roger Thornton left a small legacy to "Cok my Servante" while Henry VII (1485-1509) conferred Patents on "Coc Crissop" and "Coc Femwick". In a list of characters for a play produced about 1565 a young boy is named simply as "Cock". A popular folk-hero (c.1490) was "Cock Lorell - a sort of latter-day Robin Hood. (Incidentally the name "Cock Robin" is more indicative of gender than affection and in any case dates from only 1609).

The stroppiness of youths, their practice of making a din and their propensity to show off was just the way the barn-yard creature acted and so it is not surprising that the expression became also a general description for all boys and young men. Its modern counterpart has now shifted from a bird to an animal - namely a young goat and "kid" is now used in much the same way as "cock" was employed by our ancestors. (It is perhaps worth noting that "git" and "kid" are related terms. But the former, which is understood to have been current in Scots schools and described first year scholars, has, since about 1950, become contemptuous slang).

"Kid" is first recorded as descriptive of youngsters in 1598 and was originally regarded as vulgar slang. It gradually became more acceptable and by the time of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) it had become perfectly acceptable. In 1841 even the sedate Lord Shaftsbury described how he took "my wife and the kids" for an outing. Today it is quite unexceptional.

What is very remarkable, however, is that at almost the same time as "kid" entered current vocabulary, "cock" as a sort of personal name went completely out of usage.

Just as today it is often the custom to refer to a young man as (for example) the "Winslow Boy" or "Billy the Kid", so also in the Middle Ages and, in fact later, there was a corresponding practice of linking similar forms of identity with "cock". So, in the case of Simon, it took the form of "Simcock" and if he was called "John", then from "John" we got "Hanna" (shortened from Latin "Johannes") and ultimately "Hancock".

All these variations eventually ended up as surnames and furnish a fascinating narrative - but, sadly, discussion here would be out of place. Furthermore, any attempt now to proceed and enter into an explanation as to how "Cock" modulated into a surname would put too much pressure on existing space and must be offered for inclusion in a later issue of the "Advertiser".

To be continued...

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 31st August 1998.

Are you called COX?
(Part Three)

The previous articles discussing this surname mentioned various possible sources and concluded that since most of them were or nearly identical (e.g. cocc, coch, kok) and had all settled on the form "Cox" it is now well-nigh impossible to sort them out.

The final symbol, "-x-" only adds to the confusion. There are several letters in our alphabet which are superfluous because they have no sounds of their own. For example "c" is useless because it can be replaced with either "k" or "s". As for "x" it is an illogical rendering of "-ks-". In the case of "Cox" the alternative "Cocks" is preferable because grammatically it retains something by way of the "apostrophe s". And that is central to its meaning.

The apostrophe "s" indicates possession. In very old English the work "of" had not fully evolved: it begins to appear round about the year 800 A.D. Formerly the rule was to add "-es-" to a word. So "the door of the room" would have been "ye roomes doore".

As time passed it was found convenient to drop the "e" in writing, and indicate the omission with that little squiggle which we called the "apostrophe". (It is a Greek word which roughly means "something has been thrown out"). When this is applied to surnames, the "possessor" would have been a parent and the thing "possessed" would have been the child. So, "the child of Peter" would have been rendered as "Peteres childe" and, later, in answer to the hypothetical question, "Who's kid' that?" the reply was "It's Peter's". However this apostrophic form was clumsy and so "-s-" was simply tagged on.

Hence, in the case of a father known in his community as "Cock", if he has a child it was identified as "Cocks" or, alternatively "Cox". The final "-s" occurs in countless surnames, but in a few, the old "-es" form survives as in "Jones" and "Hughes" (i.e. child of John or Hugo). Where the Father's name ended in "-ck", as, for example "Rick" the ensuing surname would have emerged either as "Ricks" or "Rix". Similar development attached itself to "Hicks - Hix" or "Backs - Bax".

Merely in passing it may be noted that the omission of the apostrophe occurs also in a few general words. An attractive example is this. The sun is poetically called "the eye of the day". Hence we would have got "the dayes eye" (i.e. the day's eye) which emerges as "the Daisy", the little flower to which it bears a fanciful resemblance, the apostrophe in this case has vanished entirely.

So to sum up. It must follow that "Cox" must have had a corresponding development based upon a preliminary name, "Cock" otherwise neither "Cocks" nor "Cox" can be accounted for.

But then we are back where we started. There was certainly a personal name, "Cock" which can be traced back to the earliest English settlements and which survived until about the end of the 17th Century and then went suddenly out of use.

Some of the more localised sources such as "Coch" (Welsh), "cog- aim" (Irish) and (possibly?) some sea-faring expressions have been looked at in previous articles but by far the most convincing claim for the majority of the cases when the name is recorded is to be presented by an extremely old word, "Cocc" which, while it occurs in hundreds of place-names, has now ceased to be part of current vocabulary.

It means "a low hill" or "a mount". Such modest items are not very distinctive or eye-catching in any landscape and so the unit rarely goes into the composition of leading place-names. Its universality is demonstrated that, to the north we find "Cock Beck" (West Riding) and to the south "Cockhampstead" (Hertford).

The unit is to be found in localised field-names everywhere. Near Castleton we find "Silcocke", while other illustrations of its usage, borne out by reference to old records include "Cockey Farm" (Abney - meaning "Cock's Island', from the units "Cocc" plus "eg" (island) and probably because it stood on slightly elevated land and created an island when Bretton Brook flooded). A similar name occurs at Repton - "Cockey Barn Farm". In Chapel- en-le-Frith is "Cock Yard" which means "The Enclosure owned by a man called Cocca".

The notion of "hill" or "mound" however still survives in one expression. It is "hay-cock" which describes a "heap" or "pile" of hay. It may be noted that the work "Kok" occurs in Danish and there are similar terms in Swedish and Norwegian. It also lurks in the pub name "Cock and Bottle" where "bottle" has evolved from the old English "botel" which means "bundle", hence "the heap and bundle".

Surnames based on locations, particularly "Hill", "Brook", "Woods" etc. are instantly recognised because they are built upon words still in use, whereas "cocc" requires historical analysis. Bearing this in mind, then, persons called "Cox" or its less familiar version "Cocks" can take it that it is possible they might be descended from ancestors who were identified as "The Folk who lived on the Hill".

In a very few cases this can actually be confirmed from entries in old records where an explanatory phrase is introduced, namely "at" or "atte" signifying "near" or "in the vicinity of-". Thus in London (1319) there are two references to Hwgh" (sic); one as "ate Cocke" and the other as "Atte Coke". In Suffolk (1380) there is a similar entry: Thomas atte Cok".

This is only part of the story of the surname but space is limited the the rest will be concluded in a later issue of the Peak Advertiser.

To be continued...

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 14th September 1998.

Are you called COX?
(Part Four)

In the preceding articles under this name it has been suggested that it can be traced to more than half-a-dozen origins. The special difficulty was that all the differing source-names have settled on the single "Cox" (or "Cocks") and that it is now well- nigh impossible to say for certain where a particular family might look for its ancestry.

Either surname signifies "the child of the man called "Cock" - But: Who was he in the first place? And how did he come by that name? Each possibilty has been looked into. First: was it an occupational name based on forms which give us, for example, "Coxswain"? Verdict: Doubtful. Then could it have been related to Gaelic words which mean "fighter"? - possible. Next, could it have anything to do with the Welsh "Coch" meaning "red-haired" and which runs alongside "Gough" - can't be ruled out.

Is it another occupational name identifiable with "Cook"? Verdict: very likely. Cases where it can be shown to have been adopted by immigrants from Europe to correspond with their foreign surnames are not particularly relevant.

The most convincing and consistent explanation yet has been that the name is based upon the old English word "cocc" which describes a low hill or a mound. Therefore "Cox" could bear the meaning: "The descendants of the folk who lived on the hill". The fact that the name is so wide spread across the land adds considerable credibility to this suggestion.

Truly it would have been very convenient to have been able to conclude further discussion at that point, but it is a verifiable fact that the personal name "Cock" (and understood as referring to the Rooster) was so widely used until the end of the 17th century that it is impossible to imagine that, it also did not generate a surname of identical spelling. Exactly why the members of numerous medieval communities chose this nick-name for so many of their neighbours could accounted for under many headings. The most obvious is that just as the bird struts across the barn- yard, flaunting its plumage, so also did countless village swank- pots! Hence, it may be noted, there also evolved an alternative surname by way of "Peacock" - recorded in Birmingham as early as 1086.

Further, the characteristic crowing at sunrise was associated with the duties of a watchman or a "knocker-up". Even in the present century references to "the ol' cockey-watchman" was part of Liverpool urchins' lingo. However it can have generated only a few surnames since the earliest reference to a watchman dates only from 1400.

Although usage of the word "cock" expanded to include all young men and boys certainly ended up as a surname in its own right, it was so very generalised that it tended to be particularised through a process of tagging-on a specific personal name. Hence "Wilcox" signifies "the youngster whose father was called William" - while doublings-up also occur, as in Cumberland (1332) "the son of the son of William" emerges as "Wilcokson". In a few cases we can guess that Godard le Cock (Stafford: 1271), Thomas le Cok (Essex: 1285) and John le Cockes (Worcester: 1327) own their names to some dandified connection - and, note, this is not necessarily the source of "Laycock" or "Leacock". Otherwise records which include only a surname without such a definite article (as above) or some illuminating preposition (i.e. "atte" - meaning "in the vicinity of-") must remain forever ambiguous.

Only in one situation can any associations be linked with the word "Cock" in the sense of the bird. And, even then only indirectly through being exhibited as an Inn sign. Tavern keepers, particularly if the occupation tended to run in the family, became heavily identified with the name of the hostelry.

As well as "Cock", surnames such as "Eagle". "Swan" and "Falcon" originate in the same way. Very often the choice of emblem for the sign was influenced by what was displayed on the coat-of-arms of some distinguished family which associated itself with the place. The Handcocks (later Castlemaine), the Aitkens and the Cockayne families all feature a Cock in their armorial bearings - but it must be left to individual families called "Cox". or "Cocks" to follow up any leads.

The distribution of the name is fairly consistent. Apart from the 500 entries in the local directories, there are 600 for Sheffield and 1000 for Birmingham. The London registry extends across 9 columns. Numbers tend to drop in Scotland although it was recorded in Dundee (1236). There are about 150 entries covering Northern Ireland.

In works of references, over 30 names are mentioned, beginning with Francis Coxe (1560) a notorious dabbler in the occult; then Leonard Cox (1572) an eminent scholar and friend of Erasmus. The latest mention is of Sir Christopher Cox (1899-1982) an educationalist.

The most celebrated bearer of the name was David Cox (1783-1859) of Birmingham. He was an artist who specialised in rural subjects which are recognised as being among the best of their kind. An American artist also bears the name name - Kenyon Cox (1856-1919). James Middleton Cox (1870-1952) was a political leader (Democrat) who did much to improve the lot of the working- class of America.

Finally, mention must he made to Richard Cox (1776-1845) of Slough (Bucks) to whom we owe that delicious dessert apple, "Cox's Orange Pippin". Note: People claiming descent should be cautious. He died, apparently, childless.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 28th September 1998.

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