This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 8th May 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 JOHNSON?

With over 1000 entries in the local directories alone, this surname is certainly among the most widely distributed in the United Kingdom. Ever since official registration began in the middle of the last century, "Johnson" consistently falls within the "Top Ten".

It is also well-established in the United States, having been that of two Presidents: Andrew Johnson (1865) and Lyndon Johnson (1963). Both, by coincidence, were at first Vice-Presidents, and automatically took over following the assassination of their Chiefs, Lincoln and Kennedy.

The meaning of the surname is self-evident: "The Son of John" and of the final unit "-son" there is little more that can be said, within the space afforded by this feature, other than it is one of our oldest words. It can be found in forms similar to English in all Northern European languages and together they can be traced back to "sunu" which originated in speech spoken somewhere in Central Asia well over 5,000 years ago.

The leading question really is: If the name means "John's Son", then who was "John"? And, unless one has access to really reliable records, there is no satisfactory answer because the name "John" was given to so many boys that it would be impossible to follow them up individually.

However Scottish-based families are singularly fortunate in this respect. After the Conquest (1066), the Normans settled not only in England but also across the border. One such is known to us as "John" and became identified with "Johnstone" (i.e. "The Town of John") which is in the County of Renfrew, 11 miles west of Glasgow. From it has evolved the alternative "Johnson" . If you have reason to believe your predecessors came from Scotland - especially the Lowlands - that path would be worth following.

Otherwise studies of the name can hardly be much more than a commentary upon the origins of the name "John". It began in the Hebrew form as "Jochanaan" and basically means "the Lord is gracious" or "Jehovah has done me a favour". In this case, the "graciousness" or "favour" would have lain is the fact that a son had been born to particular parents. Among the Ancient Tribes of Israel there was a belief that one day there would appear the "Messiah" - i.e. a "Great Leader", who was destined to put the Hebrews ahead of all the nations of the world.

Every family earnestly hoped that even if any son born within it was not the longed-for Messiah, there was at least the chance that he might be in His line of ancestors. Not surprising then that the name was extremely popular among the Israelites and it is frequently encountered in the New Testament: John, the Temple Officer (Acts IV:6); John the Baptist; John Mark, author of the Second Gospel and John the Evangelist.

Although the name was not unknown in the western Roman Empire, it did not enjoy anything like the esteem in which it was held among Christians in that of the East. They were Greek speaking and rendered it from the Hebrew as "Ioannes". However, when the Crusaders marched in from the West, they found, what was to them, a comparatively new name which they admired so greatly that on their return home they introduced it widely amongst their town people. Latin was their language and took over as "Johannes". Out of it, in the British Isles, there have emerged our own names: John, Shawn and Ian.

Because it was adopted so very early into Britain, it clearly preserved a distinct feature of the original language - that which is now the plague of every schoolchild, the "apostrophe 's". Expressed in very simple terms, in Old English the word "of" was not used. Instead when people wanted to say, for example, "the hand of the man" they would tag on "-es" to the end of the word "man" and pronounce it in full as "mane-eeze". Hence you got: "the manes hand". As time went by it was found easier to shorten the spoken word to "manz" and, in writing, to drop the letter "-e-" and simply put in a little squiggle to indicate something was missing - leading to the Modern English way as "The man's hand". (It is called an "apostrophe" because that is a Greek word meaning "chucked out").

So, when a father, who was called "John" had a boy, it is now easy to see that at first it would be called "Johnes son", then "John's son" and eventually "Johnson". It should be noted that people accepted the use of the apostrophe in most form of writing but it was awkward and inconvenient in the spelling of names and places and vanished.

Note how easily the old "-of-" form can be detected in "Jones" (i.e. "of John" a Welsh counterpart of "Johnson").

The earliest record of the name is dated 1287 but the first specific mention occurs in Berwick for 1296. Reference books list nearly 100 persons under the name "Johnson" from Robert Johnson (1540-1625), Churchman, to Celia Johnson (1908-1982) the "Brief Encounter" actress. The most outstanding names are Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) who compiled the first great Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and Amy Johnson (1904-1941) the fast woman Aviator. And, of course, one cannot forbear to mention how here in Bakewell all the connoisseurs of Dolls' Houses and their miniature furnishings converge from far and wide upon Mrs. Pat Johnson's quaint little shop in Butts Road.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 8th May 1995.

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