This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 10th March 2003, 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 OATES?

Many Old English words are no longer current but survive as personal names; "gar" meaning spear is preserved in "Gerald" or "Gary". Some such old words have later evolved into surnames, of which "Oates", "Oddy" and "Otis" are included. The basic originals were Teutonic "odag" and "otag" which signified "wealth, good fortune".

They passed into Old English as "ead" and gave rise to the names "Edward" (guardian of wealth) and "Edwin" (friendly, wealthy). In the case of "Oates" there are several causes of confusion. First: for some reason names based on "ead" were sometimes exchanged for their Nordic counterparts. This shows up remarkably in the case of one of the earls of the West Country at the time of King Canute (1017-1035). This earl had first been baptised in the essentially English name of Edwin but following the Danish invasion of 1016, he adopted the form "Odo".

A second cause of confusion lies in that some of the forms of "Odo" were derived from another Norse word which was "odd" and meant the "sharp pointed spear". Evidence is scanty, but the personal names thus devised seem to have been either "Oda" or "Odda". Still adding to the confusion, while the old records which would have used the native names and thus provided clues to the variations such as Otto, Otho, Oto, they were rarely distinguished by later chroniclers who, wrote in Latin, and simply lumped all the names under one Latinised word: Odo. This, as a personal name has evolved into "Otto" and is well-established on the Continent even as a surname: e.g. Nicholas Otto (1832-1891) a pioneer in internal combustion engineering.

And yet the name does not appear to have been anything of a favourite among our medieval ancestors after the conquest of 1066. Maybe it was too strongly identified with Odo, Bishop of Bayeaux. He was half-brother to William I and fought with him at Hastings. It would not have been consistent for a holy bishop to have ripped open the bodies of the English defenders with, a sword: he merely knocked out their brains with a club. His subsequent career was an unedifying combination of ruthlessness, oppression, treachery and severe efficiency - hardly likely to endear him to the Saxon peasantry.

The names "Ode, Odo, and Otho" were already established before 1066 - as entries in the Domesday Book (1086) verify - but from what forms they were derived must now be problematical. Certainly we had an Archbishop of Canterbury called Odo about a century earlier but later bearers of the name had probably Norman-French connections. There was, for example Odo, Bishop of Battle (c. 1200) and Odo of Cheriton, a chronicler (c. 1247). Remarkably, the name still hung on in the north of England even until Tudor times: Oto Sagar from Bolton was a chaplain at Oxford (1522) and Otes Reddish is mentioned for Stockport in 1550.

The personal name "Odo" went through a process which is well-known to students of language development. It is called the mutation of consonants which in this case are "t" and "d". Hence "Odo" mutated into "Otto" and its variations, (note how the German "gut" becomes "good" and Latin "duo" becomes "two"). When Odo became adopted as a regular surname it followed the familiar pattern of having an "-s" tagged on to indicate "son of". Hence Christiana Odes (Northampton, 1275) Andrew Otes (Norfolk, 1278). It also passed into use as a place-name as Belchamp Otton in Essex.

Other examples may be quoted: Johannes Hotes (York 1379) with his possible relative Robertus Ottesson. John Otes of Halifax (1439) is listed as a "glover".

Merely for completeness a further origin may be lightly touched upon. In numerous areas there are mounds for which no satisfactory explanation can be provided. Fanciful romances attach themselves to some but often they are merely erratic elevations in the physical geography. They were too insignificant to attract distinguishing names and our ancestors simply referred to them as "mounds", which, in the language of the time their word was "ad" (pronounced as in "owed"). Families dwelling in the vicinity would be described as "the folks who live by the ad". It is perfectly possible that a few surnames have thus evolved. The name, for rather an involved reason, for which space is limited, usually transmutes to "Node" in a place name, but the surname would still be unmodified. A possible place for investigation is a site about 1½ miles north of Codicote, in Hertfordshire.

Suggestions that it might be a nick-name describing a wild irresponsible young fellow are unsustainable. The expression "to sow one's wild oats" first appeared in print in 1576 and although even then described as a popular saying, would have evolved long after surnames had become established.

Among celebrated bearers of the name are Captain Oates (1880-1912) "a very gallant gentleman": Titus Oates (1649-1705) a notorious rabble-rouser at the time of James II. In Britain the spelling "Oates" prevails whereas it is "Oats" across the Atlantic. A town in Darlington County (South Carolina) takes its name from an early settler and Joseph, son of George Oats was baptised in St. Michaels, Barbados. As "Otis" it is highly regarded; in the States on account of James Otis (1725-1783) a patriot of the revolution. His name has back-tracked to become a first name, hence Otis Skinner the celebrated actor and Otis Redding, the soul singer.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 10th March 2003.

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