This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 20th June 1994, 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 METCALFE?

There are some people who'd love to believe that there is more romance behind their surnames than there really is. "Dalton" for example, (8th February 1993) can't be "Frenchified" by writing it "D'Alton" and "Smith" still remains "Smith" whatever fanciful spelling and pronunciation is adopted. The bearers of an ungainly name are invariably pleased to learn that it is a corrupt rendering of something they deem more appealing and take active steps in adopting it. H.G. Wells wrote a short story about a lady who couldn't bring herself to marry a man called "Snooks" not realising that it was a worn-down version of "Sevenoaks" which he subsequently adopted.

In the case of "Metcalfe" (and its variations such as "Medcalf') - Well! It is a good old Yorkshire name and, in keeping with the Yorkshire character, - blunt and straightforward - it means exactly what it says: "Meat-Calf'.

This introduction is desirable because some Victorian investigators, shuddering at its carnivorous implications, tried to make out that "Metcalfe" was a mangled rendering of "Meadowcroft". It is true that the word "mead" ran alongside "meadow" and that it was sometimes written "med". Unfortunately the records prove that "Metcalf" had been established as a surname long before "Medcalf" appeared. In this case "med" was influenced by "mead" and not derived from it.

The name is local: it belongs to Yorkshire and first appears among the County Records in 1301.

The first unit of the name "Met-" or "Med-" can be traced directly to the Old English "mete" but it had numerous counterparts in other languages. It might possibly be related to the Latin word "mattea" which roughly translates as "something good to eat". It should be stressed that the word "meat" originally described anything that could be eaten, as distinct from anything to drink. It would have been used in cases where, today, we would say "food". (See, for example: John: IV; 32,34). In 1460 an early work on cookery refers to vegetables as "grene metis" (greenmeats). Even up to the mid-nineteenth century, the flesh of animals was still distinguished under the heading "Butcher's meat". The old way of referring to creatures left to wander at large, such as deer, partridges, pheasants etc. was "wild meat" - nowadays we call them "game" although the older expression is still used in the United States.

The second unit "-calf' presents no problem: it refers to the youngling of the domestic cow. The word has a long history and can be detected in Ancient Languages where it meant "flesh". (Note how the idea of "offspring" arises in the expression "flesh and blood"). It also meant "fleshy" in the sense bulk or fattiness: hence the bulky part of one's leg called "the calf".

So, putting the units together, although the meaning of "Metcalfe" emerges as "the young offspring of a domestic cow reared for eating purposes", it is not altogether apparent how it became attached particular people. One suggestion is that it could have been an occupational name, applied to certain herdsmen. A more convincing explanation is that it was originally a nickname. It would have been conferred upon a man who appeared sleek, plump and well-fed No doubt there was scope to link him with the "fatted calf' mentioned in the Bible (Luke: XV; v. 23-30) This suggestion derives considerable credibility in that there is supporting evidence that in earlier times it was a generic name for a farm-hand, akin, say, to "Hodge" (which has already been mentioned under Hodson, 26th April 1993). It is was often linked with "Turnbull" (a name given to an exceptionally strong man who would have been able to knock over a bull - "fell an ox" - as it was frequently stated. It was a feat not so very remarkable in times past, because, until scientific breeding began in the eighteenth century and larger beasts became the norm, cattle were comparatively diminutive). The two names, Metcalfe and Turnbull appear together in several rhymes and feature in homely tales (rather like "Tom and Jerry" of a later date) so it seems quite likely it was a natural union of nicknames.

There is no connection with "mutt" or the expression "mutty-calf' - a term of derision for a supposedly stupid person. It appeared for the first time in print as recently as 1901 and is of American origin.

Since it is so essentially a Yorkshire name, it is not surprising that its most famous bearer was the legendary "Blind Jack of Knaresborough" who was properly named Job Metacalfe (1717-1812). Apart from being an accomplished musician, he pioneered road construction.

The name is fairly well-distributed throughout the United Kingdom. The local directories list about one hundred.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 20th June 1994.

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