This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 6th September 2004, 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.”


The correct spelling of this surname, it has been suggested, involves the use of only one 'm' and that the form "Emmerson" cannot be justified. In point of fact variations in the spelling of most surnames are rarely significant. But with the introduction of so many items controlled by electronic scanning, a slight variation in the spelling of a surname has led to problems, recently there are reports of cases where the inclusion (or exclusion) of a single letter in a name entered mistakenly in a computer has caused considerable financial embarrassment to the person involved. In some cases, however, such as Smith / Smythe, the variation is valid and not a whimsical display of social superiority.

In the case of "Emerson" as against "Emmerson" from a strict etymological point of view the single use of "m" is correct. The introduction of the double consonant was probably based on mistaken comparisons with other forms - such as "Summer" which did not acquire the two "mm's" until the late 15th century. Or perhaps it was influenced by the name "Emmanuel"?

The surname, however spelled, denotes a parent / child relationship and so the father implied in the name must have had a form of a personal name appearing as "Emer" in the form the surname evolved. The actual appearance of this personal name cannot now be determined for individual cases but it must have been one of the names very popular at the time (later Middle Ages) of which mention may be made of Emetic, Eremeric, Amalric, etc. (Note: they all feature a single "m").

These were all Germanic and were once frequently encountered in these islands until the Conquest. The elements "amal" and "tic" still survive in many personal names. The unit "amal" signified "skill" and names were constructed upon it, but only "Amalia" has remained. Even so it was confused with "Emilia" resulting in the hybrid "Amelia". The element "tic" is frequently encountered in names such as "Richard" and "Frederick". It meant "ruler" and so the two taken together might bear the interpretation "he who is skilled in government".

These old names mentioned above had been known to the Normans who were of Germanic origins, and were given Norman-French forms such as Amory, Emery, Imrie, etc. With the surprising exception of "Amory" nearly every one listed is listed in the local directory.

The name "Amalric" modulated into several other names, including "Emauri" and "Imeri". With the tagging on of "son" it became, first "Emaurison" (presumed form) giving, eventually "Emerson" and, later, "Emmerson". The name seems to have been special to the north of England. The earliest mention is to a William Emeryson (no specific date is available but around the 12th century is an acceptable estimate).

The location is Durham and it may be significant that another William Emerson (1701 - 1782), who was a noted mathematician and mechanic, dwelt in Huworth of the same county and might have been a descendant. To the south, in York, the name Cuthert Emerson occurs in 1498.

The name is found in Scotland as either "Imray" or "Imrie". The fact that it is first recorded for Berwick (1329) which is just over the border adds persuasive support to the notion that it is a north country name. Of personalities bearing forms of this surname there may be included Derick Heathcoat Amery (1899 - 1981) a distinguished politician; Dick Emery (1915 - 1983) a popular performer on T.V. ("Ooh! You are awful - but I like you", was one of his catch phrases).

It may be mentioned that for a long while the name "Amerigo" - upon which the name "America" was constructed was derived from these same sources but it is now known to be inaccurate as is also the name "Elmer". The name has crossed the Atlantic and appears in the name of the American poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882). Amongst his many utterances may be selected the inspiring message: "Hitch your wagon to a star".

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 6th September 2004.

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