This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 2nd December 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 SPEIGHT?

The word "Speight" is only one of several dialect terms for the Green Woodpecker. But what is so very interesting is that nearly every one of these old expressions - speight, speght, rainbird, yaffle, pick etc. - has generated a a corresponding surname and yet what is there so very exceptional about the Woodpecker to identify it with any human characteristics?

Although the practice of identifying members of any well-defined group under a nick-name is readily acknowleged, what is not so easy to determine is what was it that called the name into being in the first place?

Many a school-master, for example, can go through his entire career bearing a nick-name, conferred perhaps half-a-century earlier, for which not even he can account! Naturally this need not always be the case. Where physical characteristics are picked-on, "Lofty" and "Ginger" present no problems, especially if the targets are still not difficult to hazard a guess as to some of the qualities first exhibited by the original recipient: "Wise" and "Trueman" for example.

It is when nick-names have been derived from wild-life - and birds in particular make up a well-defined category - that problems present themselves. The habits or characteristics of certain members of an early community could easily be equated with those attributed to birds. A vain person readily invites comparison with the Peacock and an accomplished singer with the Nightingale. From such nick-names, the present-day surnames have originated.

Sometimes, however, the comparisons were more subtle and it now requires some knowledge in depth of Mediaeval Folk-Lore in order to make sense of the associations. For example, the significance of the surname "Dove" would almost be lost unless one were acquainted with Bible Stories where it signifies the "Bringer of Peace."

In the case of the Woodpecker, however, we are confronted with something of a puzzle. Of course its characteristics are sufficiently well-known not to need describing, but how exactly they could have been related to the behaviour of a human being is not at all clear. Unlike many other birds - the Peacock, the Eagle, the Eagle, the Jay, for instance - it has no exceptional characteristics which would be reflected in a nick-name. So much so, in fact, that a theory has been advanced that the Woodpecker played a significant role in our older Island Mythology.

Although the details are now lost, that significance still invested in Folk Memory, and its survival as a surname in so many regional guises may have more to do with the part it played in long lost legends rather than anything else. It must be remembered that in the Old Days, the country was covered in dense woodland and so the bird, with its rather retiring disposition and its curious habits of nesting, would have been thought of as something of a mystery. This we tend to overlook, when today, with so much clearance, it has been obliged to come out more into the open and be a frequently observed creature hopping around the garden.

Following this line of thinking, it may be noted that in rural communities the Woodpecker is regarded as a fortunate bird. To encounter one is an omen of success, perhaps as the reward for patient effort.

Otherwise, setting aside such recondite notions, we could take it that our ancestors, who were not diffident in drawing attention to physical characteristics and being very rude and personal as well, decided that a man with a large nose and a reputation for poking it into other peoples' affairs could be compared with a Woodpecker.

It is also possible that a person with a high-pitched laugh or a shrill voice which is one of the characteristics of the Woodpecker, was dubbed accordingly.

Since the nick-name can be shown to have established itself even before the Norman Conquest, we are not in a position to say exactly what a certain member had done to deserve being called the Anglo- Saxon equivalent of "Woody Woodpecker"!

Examples of this particular dialect term, "Speight" can all be found in the Records for Yorkshire: William Speyt, 1297 being the earliest. One might ask the question: how is it that the name "Woodpecker" does not appear as a surname? Surprisingly enough the word entered the English Language rather late - the first instance in print being 1530. Even then the writer linked it with another dialect word to make sure his readers understood what he was referring to. By that date, surnames based on old regional names had become too well-established to be displaced.

The particular word "Speight" appears with countless spelling variations: Speaight, Speght for example. Notwithstanding the bird's distinctive sharp beak and its ability to penetrate the trunks of trees, attempts cannot be sustained to identify it with "spike" and the origins of that word. How "speight" has come about, therefore, remains unexplained.

It is generally regarded as a "Yorkshire" name but otherwise it is fairly evenly distributed across the country. The most notable bearers were a Yorkshire family: Thomas Speght (c.1600) who produced the first scholarly edition of the Works of Chaucer; his son, Laurence who travelled widely on Government Service and his daughter Rachel who was a pioneer in vindicating the Rights of Women.

In the Local Directories there are about 20 entries listed under "Speight". It is known to us here in Bakewell on account of our friends, David and Brenda, to whose little shop in the Arcade all those who love Teddy Bears travel from far and wide.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 2nd December 1996.

This is a Genealogy Website
URL of this page: https://names.gukutils.org.uk/Speight.shtml
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library