This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 17th October 1994, 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 FLETCHER?

Contrary to a widely held belief, "Fletcher" has nothing to do with words such as "flesh" and "flitch" (i.e. side of bacon) and so it is not an old expression for one who deals in meat. Instead it signifies "He who makes arrows". Immediately those who practise the sport of archery will say, "Of course! We use the formula 'Fletching an arrow' when we fit its end with feathers to ensure a steady flight. So it is obvious where the name comes from!" Unfortunately, it isn't! That terminology dates only from 1796 and was brought about through being confused with "fledge" - an allusion to the plumage of very young birds.

The origins of the name "Fletcher" are extremely involved. Although the Ancient Romans had a specific word for the missile shote from a bow - "sagitta" (hence 'Sagittarius') the sources from which modern English and French are derived neither adopted the Latin equivalent nor created any alternatives. Instead they concentrated their attention on the source of power which sends the missile towards its target: that is to say, they laid emphasis on all that force which is released when a length of wood, which has been bent and held under strain, and is then suddenly released. Our early English ancestors chose the word "bow" to describe their device and its associations with "bending" are easily discernible in words such as "elbow", "rainbow" and (though pronounced differently) "to bow" - i.e. to bend the body as a token of respect. On the other hand, the French picked on two Latin words, both of similar significance: "arcus" which means "curved" or "bent" (hence "arch" and "archery") and "flexus" of much the same meaning (hence "flexible"). Things now begin to get complicated. In neither language were independent words for the missile ever coined: instead both the English and French concocted words which, when, translated literally come out as "the thing that belongs to that which is bending". Then the English, for some inexplicable reason, ignored their own word "bow" and went over to Latin. (Note: "bow" is a North European word of uncertain origin.) By the time they began to form the word, the Classical Latin term "arcus" had modified into "arquus" and, after passing through changes such as "arhwen", "arwe" and "arwo", had, by the year 1100, emerged as "arrow" - i.e. "that which belongs to the curve". The French followed a similar path: however they left the word "arcus" alone and worked upon "flexus" and ended up with "fleche" i.e. "it belongs to that which is flexible".

Naturally, after the Norman Conquest, French expressions, especially if they had anything to do with fighting and defending the invaders' occupation, took a firm hold and it is easy to see how those who were trusted with the production of arrows were referred to as "Fletchers" and why it displaced the English equivalent "Arrowsmith". (This still survives as a surname but nowhere like to the same extent as "Fletcher").

Hence "Fletcher" has a very roundabout literal meaning: "He who makes the thing which is part of that which is flexible". Certainly in the turbulent times when arrow-makers were important members of every community, they had other things to worry about than the origin of their name. They concentrated upon their work, which, it must be emphasised, involved a great deal more than just putting a sharp end to a stick! They were certainly well-organised. In 1464 they were able to unite and present a petition to Parliament to be granted a monopoly in the trade of Aspen Wood "to the ende that the Flecchers thorough the Reame may sell their arrowes att a more esy price".

As an occupational name it is first encountered in the Records of Lincoln for 1273. However by the end of the 1500's crude but increasingly effective guns had displaced bows and arrows. Simultaneously though, surnames as we understand them today were establishing themselves and the name "Fletcher" persisted even though the widespread manufacture of arrows had all but ceased. The large number of people who still bear the name "Fletcher" tells us how extensive and important this occupation had been among our ancestors. In the local directories alone there are over 1,000 entries. The name "Flower" is also a variation.

It is sometimes adopted as a first name and probably the best-known personality bearing the name is Fletcher Christian who organised the celebrated Mutiny on the "Bounty", (1789).

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 17th October 1994.

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