This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 8th April 1996, 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 RAWSON?

Research into the meaning of a surname is greatly facilitated if old records can be found which show the way it was once spelled and spoken. This happens with "Rawson". It is superficially "the Son of Raw" but since that in itself refers to no name at all, there is a problem: Who or what was "Raw"? Fortunately early writings are available. In the Register for York (1379) we find references to "Willelmus Rufson" and (later) to his relative, "Johannes Rauson". These indicate that "Raw" in the name "Rawson" (and in such variations as "Rawlins" and "Rawlinson") is a shortened version of the boy's name which we now describe as "Ralph".

Forms of this name were extremely popular in the Middle Ages and so the identity of many a "Ralph" must remain unknown - not unless families have access to records which can establish a positive ancestry.

The question that arises, though, is: if the name means "Ralph's son" what has happened to the letter "-l-" in the middle when we now say "Raw-son". The answer is somewhat involved. Our Nordic ancestors built the original name on two units: "Rath" (meaning 'Advice') and "Ulf" (meaning 'Wolf'). Hence an acceptable interpretation of the name could well be - "He who is endowed with the craftiness of the wolf". Both the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans admired the name and by the time of the Conquest (1066) it had taken on several forms, of which "Radulf" was one.

Now in the development of language, it is noted that some sounds, especially in the middle of words, tend to disappear. Both "d" and "l" are particularly vulnerable. Note how in everyday speech we tend to say "Bread-and-Jam" as if it were "Brennjam"! And, although we continue to write "-l-" in words such as "talk" and "walk", we pronounce them to rhyme with "cork".

The name "Radulf" was not immune from these influences and (according to what part of the country it might have been and the corresponding dialects) was eventually reduced to forms, variously sounding as if written "rorf" or "rayf", and which were regularly transcribed in Registers with various spellings such as "Rafe", "Raffe", "Rauf" etc.

However by the time of the Stuarts (c.1600-1700) scholars were developing a curiosity in the history of these Islands and in the former languages spoken here. They studied old manuscripts and when they followed the progress of this name, they realised that the word "wolf' was involved and so pushed in the letter "-l-" to contrive what they though was a more authentic historical spelling such as "Ralf". Later, a mistaken idea that the final "-f' could be identified with the Greek "ph-" sound added to the confusion and we ended up with "Ralph".

This tended to turn pronunciation on its head! People still remembered the way they had spoken the name but couldn't always square it with the novel spellings. The Scots were definitely at a disadvantage here. They had two similar names of their own: "Rollo" and "Rolf" (both, by the way, of quite different origins) and under their influences tended to sound the in "Ralph". We know how the English spoke the name in Victorian Tunes because in one of the Gilbert & Sullivan Operas ("H.M.S. Pinafore": 1878) it is made to rhyme with "waif".

In the United States, the Scottish pronunciation seems to have been preferred for some reason and so the forms continue to run side-by-side - and not without dispute either. Probably that might be a reason for the decline in the popularity of the name.

Since 1700, when it stood about mid-way in the "top Fifty" of the most commonly used boys' names, it steadily fell out of favour on both sides of the Atlantic and by 1940 had ceased to appear at all in the ratings. As a surname, though, it belongs very much to the Northern Regions. There are over 200 entries in the Local Registers. Three personalities are mentioned in the Reference Works: John Rawson, born in Yorkshire, a distinguished soldier and statesman during the reign of Henry VIII: George Rawson of Leeds (1807-1875) a writer of hymns which are still sung in churches: and the Lancashire born, Admiral Rawson (1843-1910).

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 8th April 1996.

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