This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 27th November 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 HICKS?

The speech of many nations includes sounds which, because they do not occur in other languages are incredibly difficult to utter by people who were not brought up to learn them from childhood. The most famous example is to be found in the Old Testament (Judges Xll:4-6) which turns on the pronunciation of "Shibboleth". In modern situations the inability of the French to master the sound of the English "TH" and our initial "H" and of the Germans to pronounce our "W" are the mainstay of T.V. comic impersonators. Equally so, English speakers can rarely manage the trilled "R" in Spanish nor the nasal "N" of the Gallic tongue.

When the Normans established themselves over here, they sought to impose their lingo on the English - with a singular lack of success! The failure began at once because our Anglo-Saxon forebears were either unwilling or unable to perform the acrobatic contortions in their mouths which were necessary to make some of the Norman-French sounds.

One such utterance is that of the letter "R". Amongst most English speakers it has no definite sound except in fairly well-defined combinations: usually when followed by a vowel (e.g. red, very) and even then it is little more than a flap of the tongue. Otherwise (except in dialect) "R" has an almost imperceptible pronunciation, as in "arm" and "poor". It is little more than a weaker version of the "H" sound and, as such, is a feature in paradies of the affected speech of certain would-be social-climbers, who think it "posh" to talk of "hosspah" when they mean "horse-power".

Hence it is not surprising that when the Normans brought their version of the name "Richard" to these shores, native English-speakers found difficulty in pronouncing it. The Normans gave the initial "R" a rich, rolling sound, made at the back of the throat. The nearest the English could get to it was a sort of gutteral noise, and which in writing was represented by the letter "H" as being the best approximation. Hence "Richard" eventually emerged as "Rick" then "Hick". (Note: a similar modification occurs with Roger ("Hodge") and Robert ("Hobb").

The matter is further complicated in that the middle "-ch-" underwent changes as well. The name "Richard", to begin with, is of Nordic origin. It is made up from two units: "rico" and "hard". The first is related to an old Nordic word "rike" which means "to govern". It can be detected in the modern German "Reich". The second is self-explanatory and so together they formed "Ricohard" which signifies. "He who rules with a firm hand". Now in their turn the Normans did not favour the strong "-k-" sound in the middles of the name and softened it down to something akin to "-sh-" although they wrote it "-ch-". So the name "Richard" includes two units which were subject to several permutations, sometimes singly and sometimes in combination.

While the initial "R-" was preserved in one form, the middle "-ch-" went back to the English "-k-" sound and gave us, for example, "Rickards" and "Rixon". Alternatively, the "R-" modulated to "H-" but the "-ch-" remained and hence "Hitch" and (more frequently) "Hitchcock". Just as often, though, both the "R-" and the "ch-" were taken over by the Anglo-Saxons and produced names such as "Hicks" and "Hickling". It is regretted, but there is really not sufficient space within the scope of the "Peak Advertiser" to list, let alone comment upon, the 50 or so surnames generated by "Hick" never mind all those created from Richard.

Taking the name which stands at the head of this feature, it must be sufficient to say that it was based on the proper name "Richard" and however it was pronounced it was hugely popular among our Medieval ancestors. It is not surprising that it was borne by countless individuals and that their friends and families liked to address them as "Hick" or "Hickey" In fact the homely form eventually became a name in its own right as records show. As early as 1276 we discover a "Hikke de Sauteby" in the records for York and it is quite possible that an entry made ten years later in the same area for "Hyk, serviens" might be related. Forms such as "Hickman" mean "the servant of a man called Hick". Probably every community had a member called "Hick" and were he to have a child, then, in answer to a question, "Who does that kid belong to!" the answer came, "It's Hick's". Of course, if it were a boy, the answer could have been, "It is Hick's son" and the process of creating a surname had begun. In fact the name "Hick" became so popular that it became a sort of patronising way of referring to a countryman. Even today in the United States, to be called "a hick" is rather disparaging.

In the local directories entries under "Hicks" alone exceed one hundred. Older readers, especially if they had been Servicemen, will associate the name with Sir Seymour Hicks (1871-1949). He was a distinguished actor and theatrical manager who initiated the first Concert Party for the Troops in 1914 and later directed all subsequent entertainments for the Armed Forces during the Second World War.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 27th November 1995.

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