This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 10th November 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 MASON?

If a table were to be compiled of all the occupations which have generated the greatest number of surnames, "Mason" would not only be included but would also not be far down. In fact one such list was put together roundabout 1898 and set "Smith" at the head and gave "Mason" eleventh place. This is hardly surprising because since shelter is so fundamental to the human condition, the art of assembling stone for building work must have beers among the earliest crafts fostered in any Community.

Why "Masons" came to be given that name is not perfectly clear. Out of several explanations the one which most appeals to the "Peak Advertiser" is that the word is derived from the same sources which give us "make" and "match" - i.e. in the sense of pairing-up. As a starter it should be borne in mind that most constructions in the Earlier Middle Ages were carried out with stones which had only the roughest shaping. The carefully dressed and beautifully carved blocks such as are seen in Cathedrals and Castles belong to much later date. Even today the apparent simplicity of dry-stone walling hides the considerable skill in the choice and assembly of natural material.

So our Medieval Ancestors recognised that the proficiency of the Mason lay in his ability to select rocks and stones and then to match them up to provide firm sturdy walls.

The Anglo-Saxon word from which "make" is derived is "macian" and that in turn was based on an older word which is now lost. The existence of "mahhon" in Old German (which now reads as "machen" in Modern German) leads us to suppose that there was an intermediate "-h-" in this forgotten form. Considerable support for this notion is provided in that "masons" were called as "machunnes" in a narrative dating from 1205. The activities were specifically described in another text (1290) thus: "Machouns bi laddren cloumben up and down". (The masons climbed up and down ladders). This unrecorded "h" form was no doubt of Teutonic or Nordic origin, and had certainly found its way into Old Norman French as "machun" but (so it seems) a strong Latin influence later bore down upon it and it was re-written as "macon" (as it now is in Modern French). It is suggested that this came about because there was a mistaken identification with the Latin word "maceria" which merely describes a wall designed to enclose a garden or a vine-yard and does not involve any actual construction. Naturally, after the Norman Conquest, the French form was introduced into our Society and it prevailed over the Old English counterpart.

In passing it may be interesting to note that the presence of the middle "h" was noticed as early as the Seventh Century by the Medieval Scholar Isidore of Seville (though in a somewhat different context) and he thought there might be a link with the Latin term "machina".

Evidence that "make" once bore the meaning of "putting together" is demonstrated in that words such as "match" and "mate" can be shown to be related. A good example of this usage occurs in a Biblical Commentary of 1298 which says that "Sainte Paule of prechynge hadde he ne mak" (As a preacher, St. Paul had no match).

So from all the foregoing it is not difficult to deduce that such forms of the surname, as "Mason", "Massen" and "Masson" plainly reveal a Norman-French influence, whereas corresponding variations such as "Machen", "Machent" and "Machin" retain a semblance of their Nordic origins. This shows up in the Records. Whereas to the North, where the older forms would have been preserved, we find, in Northumberland for example "Adam le Machon" (1279) and in Staffordshire "Richard Machon" (1284) whereas in the South-East a French influence is discernible in "Tom Macon" (1130) and "Ace le Mazun" (1193).

In a few cases, as especially if there are Tyneside connections, "Mason" might be identified with a location-name. It would have been based on Mason, a somewhat imprecise neighbourhood in the vicinity of Dinnington, about 6 miles north of Newcastle. This has nothing to do with working in stone. The name has undergone considerable modification since it was first recorded as "Merdisfen" in 1242 and simply means the "Fenlands which belong to the man called Merheard".

Nearer home we have "Masson" which could easily have modified into "Mason". It is very tempting to confuse the unit "Mass-" with the same word which goes along with "pile" and "heap" and endeavour to detect links between it and the craft of a "Mason". In fact the oldest available records don't bear out this interpretation. In 1415 the name appeared as "Masseden". The unit "-den" is an old word, now usually appearing in place-names as "-dene" and means "valley". The first unit ("Masse-") is believed to be a personal name, possibly "Massa" and so "Masson" signifies "Massa's Valley".

People bearing the variation "Masson" may also lay claim to Scots ancestry since this spelling prevailed in that country. Otherwise in a few exceptional cases it could be a cut-down form of "Thompson". That is, "the son of Thomas" becoming "Thomasson" and, through loss of the first unit, ends up as "Mason".

The name is pretty well evenly distributed across the British Isles, even in Ireland where it was carried by immigrants as early as the 13th Century. In the Local Directories there are about 500 entries under "Mason" alone. The name is familiar in the United States on account of the celebrated "Mason and Dixon Line" which applies to the Boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Those of us whose memories go back to the movies during the Second World War and afterwards will recollect, with affection, the film actor, James Mason (1904-1984). His career spanned 50 years and he made over 100 films.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 10th November 1997.

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