This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 10th April 1995, 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 DAWSON?

This name can be traced to three sources: a contorted Irish version, a nick-name and a pet-name for "David".

The last two have probably originated the greater number of the surnames now borne by those called "Dawson" but in what proportions it is no longer possible to surmise.

Referring to the fond or (technically) hypocoristic forms of "David", they can be shown to be the result of that habit among all communities to abbreviate first names. No boy starting life as "Anthony" is hardly ever known by any other name than "Tony" - and even as "Tone"! (See "Lark Rise" Ch. XI). So, by the processes involved in this treatment of names, a child who left the font as "David" could go through life as "Daw". It is worth noting that there really is no standard pronunciation of names, whether full or abbreviated. They vary from one locality to another.

Within the last 50 years the name "David" could have been heard variously as "Day-vid" "Die-vid", "Dar-veed" and "Doy-vid". So it is perfectly possible that in some communities the name would have sounded like "Dor-vid" and be fore-shortened to "Daw".

Eventually it must have become accepted as a name in its own right and was handed down to succeeding generations as "Daw's Son". And, as if in answer to the question, "Who does that kid belong to?" there came the reply, "It's Daw's", then this ended up as an alternative surname: "Daws" or "Dawes" and even "Dors". (Older readers will recall the actress of that name - Diana Dors).

An equally acceptable basis for this surname is that "Daw" was a nick-name. It alluded to the bird now called the "Jackdaw". This is a comparatively recent word, first appearing in print in 1543 whereas the simple expression "Daw" predates it, in writing, by well over a century, and is still in use. The name "Jack" was linked to it in much the same way as "Jenny" was to "Wren" and "Robin" to "Redbreast".

When one speaks in that way of either of these little birds, it is natural to throw emphasis on the second unit and by so doing indicate that there are two separate (though connected) words. Originally the name "Jack Daw" was also pronounced so as to stress the "Daw" (like "Jack Russell") but for some reason or other people began to overlook the playful significance of the unit "Jack" and it blended with "-daw" and emerged as one word and pronounced accordingly. In English there is a strong tendency to throw the stress on the first syllable of most words - American usage re-inforces this practice as its shifting of emphasis on words such as "frontier", "details" and "controversy" indicates. How "Jackdaw" fell under this process is uncertain but probably was influenced by similar usages of the word "Jack" in compound words such as "Jack-knife".

However, whether it was called a "Daw" or a - "Jackdaw" the poor bird had for long acquired an unenviable reputation on account of its supposedly mischievous disposition. So much so, in fact, that even, in the ancient "Fables" attributed to Aesop, the bird is the subject of several moralising narratives. The best known tells of how a vain Jackdaw decked himself in some feathers discarded by Peacocks and unsuccessfully tried to pass himself as one of them - giving rise to such sayings as "Fine feathers don't make fine birds".

Our predecessors were familiar with the Fables and no doubt unfortunate members of their early communities were detected as having characteristics which were associated with the bird and so were nicknamed "Daw". That designation like other bird-names such as "Wren" and "Nightingale" became their established surname and survives today as "Dawson".

Finally there is the Irish connection. Re-written in the Gaelic form, it takes on the appearance of "O Deaghaidh"and signifies "one who is descended from Deaghadh". No historical personage of that name can be identified and all the evidence suggests it is some fanciful construction, rather like the homely expression "Fortune's Child". The unit "deagh" means "good" and adh" means "luck" so this seems highly probable.

Supporting evidence can be adduced arising from the conversion of the name into "Goodwin" or "Godwin" in compliance with the prohibition of Irish names by the English. It is not a perfect translation but no doubt it satisfied the English government. Otherwise the "O" (which like the Scots "Mac" signifies descent) was dropped and the unit "-son" was tagged-on to the name "Daw" which was the nearest thing in sound the Irish speakers could find to "Deaghadh". When the Irish revival began, it partially re-emerged as "O Day".

The name is generally deemed to belong particularly to the North of England and is not only that of a distinguished Yorkshire family (Longcliffe), but the earliest record is dated 1326 for a Thomas Dawson of Wakefield. Of the dozen or so notabilities mentioned in the reference books, the greater part have Northern backgrounds. It is the personal name of two branches of the Irish Peerage. The local directories contain about 400 entries under "Dawson". In recent times the best-known bearer of the name was Les Dawson, whose robust humour was typical of the North Country with which he was inseparably associated.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 10th April 1995.

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URL of this page: https://names.gukutils.org.uk/Dawson.shtml
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