This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 4th December 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 FEARN?

Recently two readers approached the "Peak Advertiser" seeking information about "Fearn". Although the two inquiries were separate, it was not altogether a surprising coincidence because "Fearn" is very much a Derbyshire name. Variations in spelling are not necessarily significant and "Fern" is also quite well represented locally although it is more strongly associated with the West Riding. Even if one leaves out forms of the surname derived from localities such as "Fernley" and "Ferneyhough" there still remain over a dozen variations on the basic word "Fern". The most exceptional formation is "Vern" or "Verne". However, bearers of the latter cannot claim undisputed identity with Jules Verne (1828-1905), the writer of popular scientific romances. His name is derived from the French "vergne" which refers to the alder tree and as such has a corresponding Scots surname in "Fernie". These two names - "Fern" and "Fernie" need separating out.

The Scots form (sometimes "Fairnie") is based on a place-name in the county of Fife, lying about 3 miles west of Cupar. In its Gaelic form it appears as "fearnach" which can be interpreted as "the place of the alder trees". The alder was once widely grown and coppiced for its many commercial uses and this is probably the source of the name. The earliest reference is to "William de Ferney" (1390). This spelling persists until 1517 and then changes to "Fernie".

Readers with Irish connections might possibly have derived their surname (Fern) as a varient of "Fearon". This comes from the old Irish word "fear" meaning "a man". It centres on County Louth.

In the case of names based on "Fern" there seems to be some uncertainty as to how our medieval ancestors applied the term. There is evidence that the distinction between ferns and bracken was of little consequence. It is recorded that in the north of England all varieties of fern were called "bracken". It is certainly significant that few of the surnames derived from "bracken" can, with any certainty, be identified with that plant. It is a Gaelic word and signifies "freckled" or "spotted".

Limiting comments to the expression "fern", it can be shown that it was most certainly well established in Old English. A dictionary compiled around the year 798 includes "fearn" and supplies the Latin equivalent as "filix". The word itself can ultimately be traced to Sanskrit, a language spoken in Central Asia about 2000 B.C. and appearing as "parna". In the transition of words from older languages there are regular alterations of letters. In this case "p-" frequently changes to "f-" and so "parna" modified to "farna" and thence to "fern". The most familiar example is probably how "pater" became "father". It is known that the Sanskrit "parna" meant "feather" and how it came to be used in connection with the feathery fronds of the plant needs no elaboration. In passing it might be noted that when "pa-" passed into Greek, the initial "p-" became "pt-" which converted "parna" into (eventually) "pteros" which meant "feather" or "wing" (hence "helicopter" or "revolving wings").

The fact that the presence of ferns in abundance was something of which our predecessors took notice is demonstrated in the large number of place names incorporating the word. There are some 120 major locations based on this element of which "Farnah" (near Belper) and "Farley" (Darley Dale) are examples from our own county. An exceptional spelling is to be found in Hampshire by way of "Vernham" (9 miles north of Andover). In the 13th century it was actually written as "Ferneham", that is, "The settlement amidst the Ferns".

So families bearing one of the dozen or so variations on the name "Fern" can take it that their original namesake was identified as "He whose dwelling is among the ferns". Since the plants seem to favour hollows and dells, the name "Ferneyhough" is not uncommon and signifies "One who lives in the ferny hollow".

Very likely, however, many of the original bearers of the name simply adopted it or were given it to identify them with the estate on which they worked. Many country houses and large establishments involved the designation "Fern" such as "Ferney Hall" near Ludlow. Another possible example lies in the case of "Fern House" which is near Hartington. It did however take its name from the Fern family and it is known that Richard Ferne was in occupation in 1482. The earliest record is to a "John de la Ferne" in 1275 (Worcester) and then to "Joceus de Ferne" in 1296 in Sussex.

Although the name was listed in the survey of 1890 as special to this county, there are no personalities mentioned in the guides and even the Standard Biographical references contain no allusions to "head-liners". A few older readers might recall "The History of a Family of Cats" which was written by a Miss Frances Fern, but beyond deducing that she was a 19th century authoress, nothing else is known.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 4th December 2000.

This is a Genealogy Website
URL of this page: https://names.gukutils.org.uk/Fearn.shtml
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library