This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 6th May 1996, 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 KAY?

There are at least half-a-dozen possible meanings attached to this name and people called Kay, or any of its variations, such as Kaye, Kays or Kayes really need to know from what part of the country they originated to be able to say, with any certainty, what their name signifies.

However a simple explanation lies in the case of families whose predecessors immigrated from the Continent. Their non-English names were difficult to reproduce and it was more convenient to use the initial letter - if appropriate - and out of which practice, the name "Kay" emerged.

People in the South-West are believed to have derived their name from a Welsh source. It took the form "Kai" and there is evidence that this is related to the Roman name "Gaius" (or "Caius"). Probably based on the Latin word "gaudium" which meant "joy" or "gladness", it was popular among the Romans, being one of Caesar's names, as well as that of a celebrated lawyer who lived about 150 A.D. and also the name of a character in the New Testament. In the "Round Table" saga, there is featured a "Sir Kay" - the foster brother of King Arthur, which indicates the widespread use of that name. From being just a first name it became a surname.

In families where there is a history of left-handedness, and particularly if they are associated with the North-West, it is highly likely that "Kay" is based on a dialect word which means "left". It still survives in the expression "Keck-handed" and "Kay-paws" is still to be heard among schoolboys in the Liverpool area! It was certainly introduced into this Region by the Norsemen since a corresponding expression "Kajhandt" occurs in the Swedish dialect.

Throughout the Northern Counties the distinctive cry of the Jackdaw led to it being identified as the "Kay" (other spellings as well). We can only guess now at whatever the qualities were which an early settler shared with a Jackdaw so as to provoke his neighbours into dubbing him "Kay" - and his successors are stuck with it!

It is also an occupational name, possibly conferred upon a locksmith, but more likely to have referred to the custodian of keys in places of security. Here, now, problems of pronunciation begin to present themselves. For the word itself, the origin is obscure. There is a very old Teutonic word "Kinan" meaning "to burst forth" or "to split open". Its application to locks and keys is acceptable. It is known to have given us the word "chine" - a feature in the landscape which takes the form of a ravine or cleft in the rock. Whereas works of parallel forms of spelling eventually ended up as, for example, "day" or "clay" this unit took on the spelling "key" and it is a puzzle that is as yet unsolved. In speech it seems to have followed the regular rules, however, and was spoken as if it were "kay", but, for some reason not understood, in the North of England and in Scotland it went over to being pronounced "Kee" and this pronunciation spread south. So it is feasible to suggest that the families called "Kay" who believe they belong to the Midlands and Southern England may take it that their ancestors were either door-keepers or locksmiths and that their surname reflects the original pronunciation of "key." In passing, it may be noted that the earliest record is dated 1199. It refers to "Britius" the son of "Kay" who dwelt in Northampton.

Finally we are left that group of "Kays" who derive their name from the word which is now written "quay". This describes structures specially designed to allow for the handling of cargo on navigable water-ways. Until about 1700, although it was regularly pronounced "kay", it was written as "key" - probably through being confused with the "lock-and-key" form although the more appropriate spelling "kay" was not uncommon. The pronunciation was perfectly in order though, since it was based on some native word (now lost) but which appears in Welsh as "cae" and means "wall" or "barrier". Curiously enough, "cae" shares ancestry with the same root word which gives the modern Spanish "cayo", signifying "reef" or "inlet". Hence the Spanish-American name for "The Caicos Islands" in the Carribean: i.e. The Isles with many inlets.

Around 1700, when interest in the development of our language was growing it was not realised that the word had a native origin in Welsh and was thought to be a corruption of the equivalent French word "quai" and so the form "quay" was devised. The English tolerated the Frenchified spelling but stuck to their own way of saying it.

Snobby Victorians pronounced it as "kay" - rather like a later generation pretended it was "ongvelope" instead of "ennverlope" - but most people settled for "key" and that's how it is now. Hence people called "Kay", especially if they live or have origins in trading centres, could lay claim to an ancestry in this context.

The name is well-represented locally - there are about 400 entries under "Kay" alone in the local directories. It is certainly a well respected Northern name. The best known bearer is John Kay (1704-1764) who invented the flying shuttle. He originated in Lancashire. It was also the name of Patrick Kay (1904-1983) better known under his professional name, Sir Anton Dolin, the internationally acclaimed ballet dancer.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 6th May 1996.

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