This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 24th April 2000, 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 MITCHELL?

This surname is derived from "Michael" which is found more frequently as a first name. The reason for this is that until about the seventeenth century the way we now say that name - so as to rhyme with "cycle" - was very rarely used. Instead it was pronounced in several ways, and spelled accordingly. That is why "Michael" (so spelled) occurs rather less frequently in the old records than any of its variations and why it is now comparatively rare as a surname. There are only two entries in the local directory - three, if "Michaels" (i.e "the son of Michael") is included.

One might think that this is quite surprising since the name is so very well established in the culture of Western Europe. In Britain alone, the element "Michael" provides a basis for at least 60 place-names. And, of course it is the generic name for an Irishman (usually as "Mick") but in fact, strange as it may seem, there are no records of its use in that country much before the 1600s. Above all, it is one of the most important events in the Church calendar, as the the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel. It dates from the fifth century. It is more popularly known among us, though, as "Michaelmas" (29th September) and in the saying of that word, it is immediately apparent that the first unit ("Michael-") is pronounced so as to rhyme with "fickle".

Although this item is not really significant in the present context, nevertheless it does provide a starter for a description as to how the name passed through successive languages and changed its form.

Testament folklore which held that there were seven heavenly messengers or "Archangels". Each of them fulfilled a distinct role and bore a specific name. Hebrew tradition was taken over by both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but of the seven Archangels only three (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael) were accorded any spiritual significance.

Michael was pre-eminent, largely because of the graphic account of his battle with the forces of evil as set forth in the Book of Revelations, Chapter XII, verses 7 to 9. (See also Daniel, X, 13-21 and the Epistle of Jude, I. 9)

In art, he is usually represented as a warrior clad in mail and wielding a spear and trampling the Devil underfoot.

His name can roughly be transliterated from the Hebrew as "Mikhael" and is interpreted as "Who can possibly stand comparison with God?" (c.f Micah which means "Who is like unto the Lord?")

The exact way the ancient Hebrews spoke the name cannot easily be reproduced in our different lettering but the central unit, "-kha-" approximates to the "-ch" in the Scottish word "loch".

When it fell to the Greeks to write the name, they represented the sound by using their letter "chi" which looks rather like our "k". That is why it is spelled, for example, "Mikhailov" in countries which still use lettering derived from the Greek.

The sound did not exist in Latin and the nearest the Romans could get to it was by concocting the unit "-ch-" and wrote the name as "Michael".

It was certainly recognised by ordinary people in the Anglo-Saxon community but they adopted a pronunciation which was a sort of compromise between that of the original Hebrew and the Greek equivalent. Forms of surnames thus derived must be discussed in a future article.

Otherwise while ordinary folk pronounced the name in one way or another according to local usage, in writing, mostly in the hands of the clergy, it was given the learned or Latin form.

Meanwhile in France a corresponding development had taken place. The Normans admired the name which they generally spelled as "Michel". However, the intermediate "-ch-" was not pronounced as it is today in words such as "change" (i.e. "sharnje") but like the "-tch-" in "match". This sound is still preserved in such French words which were adopted by the English before the alteration came about, e.g. "chandler" (1325). Note the difference between "chandler" meaning a dealer in candles but "chandelier", a candle-holder, which came into use about 400 years later.

So the Normans pronounced "Michel" as if it were spelled "Mitt-chell" and which was adopted by the English either as "Michel" or "Mitchel".

It was used both as a first name and as a surname. Indeed sometimes both! In Somerset we encounter "Michele Michel" in 1327, whereas in Suffolk at the same time "Michel de Whepstede" had to make do with it just as his personal name! In Scotland, in 1489, a certain "John Michael" was involved in the siege of Dumbarton Castle. It passed across to Ireland where it proved universally popular.

Locally there is a "Mitchell Field" at Hathersage but it dates only from 1727. The forms "Mitchells" and "Mitchellson" with minor variations indicate descent as "the kid who belongs to Michel". The earliest record is for York (1379) where mention is made of two brothers "Johannes" and "Adam Michelson".

There are so many celebrities who have borne the name it would be impossible to make a reasonable choice. Still we ought not forget Margaret Mitchell who provided that block-buster "Gone with the Wind" (1936) and older readers will still recall the B.B.C (later T.V.) announcer, Leslie Mitchell (1905-1985). In Ireland the name is highly regarded through John Mitchel (1815-75) a nationalist and journalist. And of course there is Warren Mitchell, the actor, who is to be forever associated with the role of the bigoted Alf Garnett in the B.B.C's series "Till Death Us Do Part".

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 24th April 2000.

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