This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 19th June 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 OLIVER?

This surname is obviously derived from the personal name "Oliver". Contrary to a popular belief, it has nothing to do with the olive plant. In the classical world olive branches symbolised peace and in the Old Testament, the olive tree sigified prosperity - Psalm 52:3. These associations no doubt had considerable bearing when choosing a name for a boy (or, in the case of a girl, "Olivia") but in fact the name originated in Scandinavia and had pagan associations. It took the form "Anleifer" which means "He who will uphold the best traditions of our forebears". It is still to be found in Iceland as "Olafur".

The Scandinavians contracted it to "Olaf' and it was brought to Britain by the Danish invaders - one of whom, Olaf II, crossed over to Ireland to become King of Dublin (952-981). Another Olaf, King of Norway (1015-1035) was made a Saint and as St. Olave has given us the place-name in Suffolk (7½ miles s.w. Yarmouth) and is the titular saint of many churches - in particular St. Olave's in Tooley Street (London Bridge). Incidentally his followers spoke of him as "St. Tooley" which accounts for the name of the street. His day is 29th July.

However, the Scandinavian form was displaced after the Norman invasion of 1066, and the Gallic counterpart, "Oliver" took over. The invaders greatly admired the name because they liked to believe that the hero of several medieval chronicles was involved in their history. It all centred on the German Emperor Karl (742-814) whose name was Frenchified into Charlemagne. A great many stories centred upon him and his two great Paladins (commanders) who were called Roland and Oliver. They are the central characters in a celebrated romance called "The Song of Roland".

Although it is certainly based on an attested historical event. (The Battle of Roncesvalles: 778) the narrative is highly romanticised. Even so, both Roland and Oliver met heroic deaths. In their lifetimes, at first rivals, they became inseparable and gave rise to the saying, "A Roland for an Oliver". This expression is frequently encountered in literature (Shakespeare: Henry VI (Part 1) Act 1, Sc. ii) and is used in contexts which imply that one gives as good as one gets.

Apparently it was deemed to be somewhat low because Sir Walter Scott says in the "Antiquary" (1810) "He gave my termagant kinsman a quid pro quo - a Rowland for his Oliver - as the vulgar say".

Be all that as it may, although the hero was Germanic and would have borne the name "Olafur", the Normans converted it into "Oliver" and held him in something like the same regard as the British held King Arthur. Indeed, according to a well-authenticated tradition William of Normandy adopted him as a model for his troops during the Battle of Hastings. He directed one of his minstrels to ride amongst them "to sing ... of Oliver... and those brave knights at Roncesvalles that died".

Under Norman influence the name was adopted widely throughout the island. From far south in Cornwall we find Jordan Oliver (1201) to Walter Olifer in Glasgow (1180). One of the curiosities of the name is that it now seems only to survive as "Oliver" and that forms indicating descent have, apparently, died out. No examples can be traced locally. Although John Oliverson (1593), Hugh Oliverson (1594) and Thomas Oliverson (1606) were recorded as living within the same area of Manchester, by 1873 the name was reported as extinct. In Scotland only one example is available: Isaach Oliveri, Canon of Aberdeen for 1366 - nothing later.

Only one personality with the possessive "-'s" seems to be listed. It is Thomas Olivers (1725-1799). What is really odd is that his parents are registered as Thomas and Penelope Oliver. How he acquired the additional "-s" is not certain. He is well-known in Methodist circles and wrote the hymn "The God of Abraham Praise".

The pet form of "Oliver" is now "Ollie" - hence the identity of the fat partner in the celebrated comic duo, "Laurel and Hardy". Yet until comparatively recently it was "Nolly" (Note how Nancy addresses Oliver Twist - Ch. XX). But the celebrated sculptor Joseph Nollekens was of Dutch origin and the name is not related.

The name has passed into popular use in connection with the "Bath Oliver" biscuits, devised by Dr. William Oliver (1695-1764) the leading physician of Bath (Somerset) from 1775 onwards. Their distinguishing characteristic, it seems, was the absence of sugar. (An early aid to slimming, perhaps?)

The most famous bearer of the name this century was Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) the celebrated actor, who, as Lord Olivier actually attended the House of Lords and made a useful contribution to the debates. And of course old readers will recall the BBC personality, Vic Oliver, who kept us all entertained during the war.

There are about 120 entries altogether in local directories and the name is fairly evenly distributed across the country. It is not a native name in Ireland. It was introduced there in the 1300s and is now particularly associated with Limerick.

To conclude: As a first name it was extremely popular among our ancestors until the time of Cromwell. Then the name went absolutely out of favour on account of the unhappy associations with that personality, whose first name was "Oliver". The name began to creep back into use round about the year 1875 and just about persisted until quite recently when it has risen to a place roughly half-way in the "top forty" names compiled by the Central Registry.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 19th June 2000.

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