This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 20th October 2003, 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 JAMES?
(Including JAMESON)

James is one of many personal names which have been modified or adapted as surnames. The source of the name is said to be the Hebrew "Yaakov" which translates into "Jacob". The original Jacob was a patriarch who has always stood high in the Hebrew tradition. He was the second of twins (Esau and Jacob). A doubtful legend has it that he was delivered while clasping the heel of his brother: hence the name is believed by some to be a corruption of the Hebrew "akev" meaning "heel".

Our medieval forebears drew upon an extensive list of personal names when naming their children, of which biblical names were a major number. Those belonging to the Apostles were especially favoured. Traditionally there are claimed to be twelve such personalities although a careful scrutiny suggests fifteen! While their respective names maintained their form in writing, in speech they underwent modification, obscuring their origin.

The biblical texts of the time were in Latin but personal names were easily recognised. against the popular counterparts: Petrus for Peter and Andreas for Andrew. Unfortunately the name "James" is an exception. In Latin it appears as "Jacobus" and this has caused confusion.

But how did "Jacob" modulate into "James"? Expressed in very simplified terms "James" evolved from what is called "Late" or "Vulgar" Latin. As the Roman empire expanded, Latin went with it, but local speech patterns influenced pronunciation and spelling - as, similarly as is happening today in the case of American and Australian English. So "Jacobus" modified into "Jacomus".

The loss of the letter "b" is reflected in words where it is silent as in "debt" or "tomb." In French it becomes "Jacques", in Italian "Giacomo" and most significantly as "Jaime" in Spanish. It is significant because in Old Spanish the "J-" was pronounced something akin to the "ch" in the Scots word "loch:" - hence Scots "Hamish" and the Irish "Shamus" came about in the same way.

The Apostle James was admired because of all his associates, who remained in the Eastern Mediterranean, he alone ventured as far as the extreme north-west of the Iberian Peninsula. Subsequent events suggested that his body was buried there. The alleged site of his grave had for long been subject to superstitious veneration because of the presence of prehistoric megaliths. Their presence may have influenced thinking in the matter of the possibility of the Saint being interred there. This particular corner of Spain had withstood the Moorish invaders and remained a haven of Christianity. Invoking the tradition that St. James was associated with the region, the cry went up "for Saint James" - i.e. "Sancte Jacobo" providing the name "Santiago". A later discovery of his alleged tomb (c. 800) led to the erection of a church called "Compostela" which is said to be a contracted form of the dedication "To St. James the Apostle" - i.e. Ad Sacrum Jacobum Appostolum - i.e. Gia-(como Posto)-lo.

The place became a celebrated centre of Christian pilgrimage and devotion. Like the road to Canterbury, the routes to Compostela were the basis for countless medieval romances. Spain was proud at being the only place in Western Europe to house the remains of an Apostle (except, possibly in Rome - St. Peter) and adopted him as their patron saint. Pilgrims made a feature of collecting scallop shells from the adjacent sea shore and wore them in their hats to prove they'd been. The shell is one of the symbols of the Saint and of travellers generally - hence its adoption by the Shell Oil organisation.

Contrary to popular misconception, although a recognised personal name, "Diego" is not any form of "Jacobus". It had already been a name long beforehand. Similar they may seem, but "San Diego" is not "Santiago". It is not a corruption of "James" and the dismissive description "dago" is often misapplied. It dates not much before 1700 but gained greater currency among United States service personnel during the 19th century (c.f. Chinks, Paddies).

The name was very popular in Scotland and was borne by several monarchs. Note: the form "Jacobus" yields "Jacobean", descriptive of the artistic styles developed during the time of James I, and "Jacobite" describes supporters of the exiled James II.

Early examples are confusing. Records compiled in Latin use only Jacobus but it is feasible the respective bearers might have been called "James" by the community. This duplication sometimes shows up in the medieval records: "James or Jacobus of Abingdon" (1221) and "James or Jacobus Rossel of Wenlock" (1297). An attested entry is for "Willelmus Jamesson of York" (1379).

Although James and Jameson are the two most frequently used and are both well represented in the local directory, variations in spelling are not significant. Personalities include Henry James the Anglo-American novelist and Mrs. Jameson whose writings on art are still consulted. Older readers might remember Alexander James the brilliant Northern League footballer, whose transfer fee of £9,000 to Arsenal (a London club) was a precursor of later fabulous transfer fees. Second World War veterans will be intrigued in learning that Mussolini is a related surname!

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 20th October 2003.

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URL of this page: https://names.gukutils.org.uk/James.shtml
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