MILE or MYLES (Part Two)

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 31st May 2004, 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 MILE (or MYLES)?
(Part Two - Ed's Note: sadly I missed the edition with Part One in)

In the previous article covering the evolution of this surname, it was suggested that it might have evolved from some corresponding personal names or from the Latin "miles" meaning "a soldier". If the latter had been the case, it would have been applicable to a professional warrior - a mercenary perhaps? - but more likely to have been a servant or retainer whose duties required the carrying of arms. And according to contemporary accounts there was no [Ed:sic] need of them! "No country in the world where there are so many thieves and robbers as in England; few venture to go alone". (Italian visitor, 1496). It may now be noticed that the name "Miles" was, and still is, extremely popular in the north of this island and can most certainly be attributed to the Gaelic word for servant which is "mael".

Historically "mael" is interesting. In early Gaelic society status was demonstrated by the length one was permitted to grow one's hair! The chieftain and nobility of a tribe always sported luxuriant locks while those of lower status were restricted to short hair. Research into the language reveals that not only did the word "mael" mean "close-cropped" but was metonymic for "slave". Things changed when in the year 563 AD an Irishman called Colum (better known as St. Columba) established a religious community on the island of Iona and thence began the conversion of Scotland to Christianity. This induced a change in the meaning of "mael". The notion of servitude was replaced with that of a free and willing devotion to a particular personality e.g. a Saint. The best known example is "Malcolm" ("mael-colum" or "servant of St. Columba").

There is evidence to suggest that using the names of greatly venerated personalities rather too freely was out of order and in familiar use (in the family or among friends) it was the practice to use only the prefix "Mael-" and omit the rest of the name. In the fullness of time, familiarity with the English word "mile" caused the spelling of "mael" to change to "miles". It might also be noted that the Gaelic alternative word for "servant" which is "Gille" became more established and the use of "mael" was less frequent. This certainly had some effect on the development of the surname "Miles" but it is rather too complicated for discussion here. The earliest record is for a Thomas Myles of St. Boswells in Roxburgh, 1641.

Pronunciation also created problems. Many words were pronounced differently from ourselves by our predecessors. In a well-known poem "twins" is set to rhyme with "shines" and there is a rhymed couplet where the phrase "... many a trial" is paired with "... the Dragon and St. Michael". This indicates that "Michael" was spoken as if written as "Myall" (as it sometimes was!). It may be noted that Miles Coverdale (who translated the Bible into English 1535) when referring to himself in Latin, used "Michael".

With so many possible interpretations of the surname, simply to mention instances would not be useful. Unless families called "Miles" have access to some positive form of identification any definite explanation for their name would be problematical. Strange to say, the number of personalities listed in the National Biography is very small and none is exactly a "headliner". The name is well represented locally with nearly 100 listed in the directory.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 31st May 2004.

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