This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 28th August 2000, 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 DALE?

A reader from Matlock has drawn the attention of the "Peak Advertiser" to the fact that while our region is celebrated for its "Dales" that word does not predominate as a surname. Only 60 or so entries appear in the local directory, whereas there are over 500 for "Hill".

The reason, expressed very simply, is that the word "dale" as used to describe a valley entered the language rather late. Before then the Old English word was "denu" (now "dene"). It is discernible in numerous place-names from Denwick (Northumberland), Sheldon (Devon), Denes (Norfolk) and Plowden (Shropshire). Running alongside were also the words "dael" and "dell". Briefly "dell" tended only towards the south-east, whereas "dael" was widespread elsewhere. Both were used to describe localised features such as small depressions, shallow valleys and even holes in the ground. The way our ancestors interpreted the word "dell" or "dael" is attractively illustrated by reference to the Classical legend of Curtius.

In 362 B.C. Rome was in turmoil. The ground beneath the forum had subsided revealing an unfathomable abyss. The oracles were consulted and declared that the Gods were displeased and could only be placated if the people threw in their greatest treasure. Whereupon a youth called Mettius Curtius, arrayed in full armour, mounted his steed, declared that Rome had no greater treasure than a courageous citizen and leaped into the void and the earth immediately closed over him.

Our medieval ancestors admired the story. It was frequently translated from the Latin and what is interesting is that the words signifying "Abyss" or "Chasm" were often rendered as "Dell". So in 1531 one translator said, "Curtius enforsed his Horse to lepe into ye Dell".

Nowadays we associate a "dell" with bluebells and fairies and so the notion that a dell could once have described a place of danger is surprising. Yet the old chronicles abound with descriptions of the worry farmers felt on hearing one of their beasts had fallen into one.

A new development followed the Nordic invasions (c.900). Many foreign words were imported. One of them was "dalr". This was the old Norse for "valley" and it is easy to see how it merged with the Old English "dael" becoming "dale". It may be noted that the Norsemen did not venture beyond the south of the Thames, and so the word dell was not much affected. With the sole possible exception of Arundel however it is found largely in minor place-names.

To the north the word "dale" was quickly adopted as the standard geographical term for features such as Dovedale, Borrowdale, Clydesdale etc. Its application to small depressions, holes or chasms was gradually discontinued and it is rarely encountered in such senses after 1500. Even in 1489 a writer thought it advisable to explain that "dell" could signify "an evill pathe". However it had become too well-established in hundreds of local site names to be displaced. In our own county at least 70 can readily be mustered.

Sometimes "Dale" exists in isolation, as near Ilkeston and Killamarsh, but more often as a compound, such as "Broxendale" near Middleton and meaning "the hollow frequented by badgers".

Its suitability as a surname was apparent. In the smaller medieval communities where the existence of a "dale", if not exactly a landmark, was at least a well-known local feature, it could provide a convenient means of identification. A family who dwelt in its vicinity would have been known as "they folk as dwell in yonder dale", which finally settled on "Dale", "Daile" and in the south-east as "Dell", "Deller" or "Daleman". But however well-known to the local inhabitants were Dales, unless they had exceptional characteristics which brought them to the notice of communities beyond the neighbourhood, they would not be recognisable by strangers.

Consequently, if a man known in the community as "Dale" were to move away to another settlement, his name would be meaningless and he would soon acquire a new one. His associates would no doubt pick on a physical characteristic or his occupation. In some cases, while he might have been known simply as "Dale" in his native place, the site itself might have acquired an additional unit by which he would then be called - e.g. Ravensdale - the hollow where ravens gather, or Sterndale - the stony depression.

Some support for the notion that at the time surnames were evolving and when "dale" had not yet absolutely settled as meaning a majestic valley, but on more modest forms in the landscape, can be shown in the case of Suffolk. This county is not noted for exceptional hills and dales, yet nevertheless the first record of the surname occurs there. It is to Ralph and Thomas de la Dale (1273). Another Suffolk entry is for John atte Dale (1327). Otherwise William en le Dale is found in Sheffield for 1318 and in Lancaster (1332) for Richard del Dale. The first instance of the name on its own is to Nicholas Daile of Yorkshire (1332). The regular persistence in the early records to forms including "of" or "by" (the Dale) certainly suggests that "Dale" was too indefinite as a means of identification beyond its immediate vicinity, and as a consequence has not generated as widely distributed a surname as might have been thought.

Older readers may still recall a popular radio serial "Mrs Dale's Diary" and in the form "Dell" was the name of an extremely popular novelist, Ethel M. Dell (1881-1939) who specialised in heroes of "the strong silent type". Otherwise there are only a dozen or so personalities bearing the name in the standard biographies but none is really a headliner.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 28th August 2000.

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