This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 5th May 1997, 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 FORMAN?

This name appears in similar form, although with different meanings, in several mid-European languages, as, for example, the Nordic "Fuhrmann" and the Slavonic "Forman". There is a link with the German word "Fuhrer" which means "Leader" and is inseparably associated with the Dictator, Adolf Hitler. Otherwise it was an occupational name and described men who "led" or "drove" horses in their capacity as carters or carriers.

Many sought refuge in this country and the United States and simply refashioned their name, if necessary, to make it correspond with what already existed in English. Today descendants of such immigrants will have family traditions to verify if this is the source of their surname.

Otherwise it is Old English and it makes no difference whether it is spelled "Forman" or Foreman". However the first version is the more authentic. The unit "For-" does not mean "in front of or "in the lead", but is based on an old Anglo-Saxon word, "fearh" which simply means " a pig". Hence "Forman" is also another occupational name and means "He who looks after the pigs" - and, as will be later suggested, particularly newly-born and very young piglets.

It must be remembered that in the Middle Ages pigs were an important part of the Rural Economy and people who specialised in the rearing and the welfare of these animals were highly regarded. The status of a "Forman" was higher than that of a mere "swine-herd".

The significance of the tagged-on "-man" is easily understood as comparing with similar compounds such as "Herdman" and "Woodman".

The origins of "For-" are less obvious. As a starter it may be noted that "fare" was once a collective noun to describe a litter of pigs. It may still survive in dialect and until quite recently the expression "For Sale: a good faring sow" appeared in Farming Announcements. "Fare" is related to "farrow" which is still in current use and signifies "to give birth to a litter of piglets". However at one time it was also employed to designate a young pig. It can be traced as far back as the year 700 and Lord Byron employed it as recently as 1820.

Since pigs were so essential a contribution to the diet of ancestral peoples, the words to describe them are of considerable antiquity and many of which have become forgotten. Still it is not difficult to see some common origin for the Latin "porcus" and the Old Irish "orc" - both meaning "pig".

In the transition of words from an earlier language into a later one, initial letters undergo changes and the letter "P" is particularly vulnerable. It frequently changes into "F". Note how the Persian "peri" becomes "fairy" and the Greek "pyros" turns into "fire". In the case of "porous" this modification can be seen, not only in "fare" and "farrow" but also in the Swedish "farg" and in the German "ferkel" - both of which signify a young pig.

This persistent meaning of "young pig" throughout all these expressions suggests that possibly the work of the "forman" was almost exclusively with breeding and rearing newly born and immature piglets and that when they were fully grown and able to fend for themselves, then they were passed into the care of the swine-herd. It is possible that the expression "farrowman" may have been used and may even survive as a surname but "Forman" seems to be the principal reminder of what was once an essential occupation.

A word of caution must now be directed towards those who seek to lay claim to having an ancestor who stood so high in the community as to be referred to as a "Foreman". This meaning is comparatively modern, making its first appearance round about the beginning of the 15th Century when surnames were almost established. The earliest record dates from 1425 and simply describes a man who led an armed force in these words: "Stevenson was forman and opened ye waye...".

It is suggested that anybody who took on the role of "Foreman" would (as the 1425 extract shows) have had a name already and that few individuals, if any, could have acquired such a new identity. Of course attempts to relate the name to the occupation of a "Foreman" as being one who was in charge of a group of workmen can be ruled-out. It did not come into use until a hundred years later.

Although the name seems to be fairly evenly distributed across the country there does appear to be certain preponderance towards the Eastern side - notwithstanding that the earliest record, dating from 1255 refers to a Robert Forman somewhere in Scotland. It has associations with Berwick-on-Tweed and a survey carried out in the 1890's concluded it centred on Lincolnshire. It is probable that this Eastern weighting might have been increased through a blending of the occupational names of "Forman" with the similar sounding location names of Fornham (Cambridge) and Fordham (3 places in Cambridge, Essex and Norfolk).

The best known bearer of the name is Buxton Forman (1842-1917) whose scholarly edition of the poetry of John Keats is still standard.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 5th May 1997.

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