This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 3rd September 2001, 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 WOOD?
(Part One)
Woodland, Woodman, Woodward etc.

After setting aside the numerous permutations on the name "Wood" it still remains one of the most widely distributed surnames in the kingdom. The local directory contains over 600 entries.

Because woods were a vital element in the medieval economy, the number of plantations even within a small neighbourhood was considerable. They provided fuel for domestic and industrial use (charcoal for smelting), fencing, gates, poles, ladders, furniture as well as building. There are so many "Woods" that, as in the case of bearers of like surnames, such as "Hill" or "Brook" it is now almost impossible for families called "Wood" to trace their specific origins.

It helps somewhat if the surname can be related to some identifiable plantation such as "Moorwood", which is near South Wingfield and mentioned as early as 1154. But establishing a woodland was a continuing process and some sites are named after later landowners, and if they too have a "wood" name, there is no connection as in the case of "Littlewood" near Moreley, first appearing as late as 1786.

Since there are more than 300 sites in Britain incorporating the unit "wood" [and that] 38 of which are in Derbyshire, [and that] attempts to suggest meanings for them all would convert this feature into a gazetteer, [then] selectivity is inevitable and mostly names appearing in the local directory will be noted.

In Old English "wood" appears as "wudu" and has corresponding forms in the languages of the northern regions of Europe. (Ved-Norway: Gwydd-Wales). It evolved independently in the basic language and no transitions can be traced from earlier sources such as Sanskrit. It had a wider meaning than today since most of the landscape was thickly covered in woods and forests. It first appears in 825 where a translation of Psalm 104, verse 11 is given as "alle wilddeor wudu", which now reads as "every beast of the field".

As a surname the earliest references are, in England, to "Walter de la Wode" (Hereford: 1242) and in Scotland, to "William Wod" (Kilravock, Nairn - 1295). It seems that the name became so widespread that it was not unusual to add an occupational name as well. Hence in York "Thomas del Wode" (1378) is noted as being a "smythe" and his neighbour "Robertus del Wodde" (1379) as a "webster" (weaver). It should be noted that the earliest entries invariably carry prepositions such as "by" or "in" or "of the". These were later dropped but some were assimilated, providing another range of surnames such as "Attwood", "Inwood" "Dillwood" etc.

As a surname "Wood" was widely applicable to anybody who dwelt in the vicinity of a plantation or who worked there in some capacity. On the other hand "Woodland" was a little more specific and described a family which actually dwelt amidst the trees. Curiously, though, it is not noted for Scotland. The earliest record is to "Henry de Wudeland" (Lincoln: 1195).

There is some doubt over "Woodrow" but since the early records tend to be concentrated in restricted neighbourhoods, it seems that here "row" describes a line of cottages provided for the accommodation of workers. Thus in Sussex (1154) neighbours sharing the name "Woderue" are named successively. In Scotland the term seems to have settled on an overseer of workers in a plantation and is found as in the case of "John Woodroffe" (Glasgow: 1505). An especial problem here is that there are several places called "Woodrow", any one of which could have generated the surname. As a place-name, though, it means "the path through the wood" and families called "Woodrow" must decide for themselves. For reference the sites noted are in Melksham (Wilts.), Amersham (Bucks.), Kidderminster (Worcs.), Fifehead and Haselbury (Dorset) and another district near Leeds.

It is the practice to plant trees on a hill-side or on sloping ground to prevent erosion. This practice was so well-observed by our medieval ancestors that there are over 50 major habitations listed in the gazetteer as well as innumerable neighbourhood names.

Here, since the majority of land-owners were Norman and spoke only French, there was a tendency to use that language first then to adopt English and this leads to a duplication of surnames. Families associated with "Woodside" at Bolsover or at Ripley might have been registered as living in "bosco de Bollisovere" or "bosco de Rippel" and designated "de Bosco" or "de Bois" which generated the surname "Boys" or "Boyce".

Otherwise the earliest record of the English form is in Cumberland and is to a "Robert del Wodsid" (1332) and in Scotland to a "James" (1550). He definitely took his name from "Woodside" in the parish of Beith, Ayrshire.

The economic importance of medieval woodlands is further demonstrated from the number of occupational names relating to them. The supervisor or "guard" or "ward" of the woods in a certain district was called the "wood-ward" and this provides the corresponding surname - hence "Sewhal le wudeward" (Hampshire: 1208).

This name is well-represented locally with over 200 entries in the directory. The name "Woodman" (also included in the directory) looks almost self-explanatory - ie. the man who works in the plantation, but, caution! Surnames are not always what they seem. It was indistinguishable from another occupational name relating to a man who was a dyer or seller of dyes - that is "woad" and hence was called a "Woad-man". Both surnames ended up as "Woodman".

Here, mention of the fact that some surnames have unexpected meanings provides a suitable place at which to pause and to take up the name "Wood" again in the following issue of the "Advertiser". The result may be surprising!

To be continued...

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 3rd September 2001.

Are you called WOOD?
(Part Two - Woody)

The preceding article ended by saying that some surnames have an unexpected significance. This is certainly the case with Wood. As a starter, during the Middle Ages, since wood was just about the only material available in a few specialist situations - wine, for example, is aged in wood. A remarkable relic is still in use with the reference to the Cross or a Crucifix. This was frequently spoken of as the wood. Note the words of the Hymn by J.M. Neale (Good King Wenceslas) his precious body, broke on the Wood. Hence the formula we often employ to ward off misfortune: "Touch wood!"

From an investigation of the old registers of surnames, it is interesting to note that under Wood some entries indicated that the bearers live by or in the Wood (e.g. Gilbert a la Wode of Worchester, 1275) while others are simply designated as Wood (e.g. Richard Wod of Somerset, 1230). The question is: Why should Gilbert be described as one who dwelt in a wood whereas Richard appears to be equated with lumber?

The answer is that in the medieval vocabulary wood not only meant a collection of trees but also "mad" or, at best, simple-minded. So poor Richard might have been the village idiot!

The word is no longer part of current English but it remains in modern German as "Wut" (rage, fury, tantrums) and wuten (to storm, to rage). In a curious roundabout way it can be discerned in the name of the fifth day of the week, Wednesday. While it is commonplace learning that it is derived from the name of the Teutonic god called Woden, the origin of his name is less understood.

Although the point is not perfectly settled in points of detail, it was believed that during the tempestuous hours of darkness, the ghosts of warriors slain in battle rode across the clouds. They were called the Furious Army or The Savage Riders. Their leader was called Wode which signifies The Furious One.

In Old English the word for mad or furious or frenzied was wad and so it is easy to see how it became confused with wode which meant a plantation.

The old meaning may also be noted in the name of the bird - the Woodcock. Apparently it was so easily lured into traps that it passed into being a nickname for a simpleton. Shakespeare says (Taming of Shrew: Act I Sc. 2: "O this woodcock! What an ass it is!" (1594). However the name is so widespread so it must be taken that not every man who was called Woodcock was not very bright - as William Wudecoch of Norfolk (1175). The name could very well be a location name as well, such as Woodcote which means "The dwelling amidst the trees."

The Gazetteer lists about 20 sites. The best known bearer was Bruce Woodcock whom older readers will remember as a boxing hopeful in the 1940's.

The earliest instance of the expression is to be found in a sort of Old English/Latin Dictionary compiled in 725. There Wode is set alongside epilenticus which is an old term for epileptic. A similar use of wad or wet (to be mad) occurs in the Anglo Saxon version of St. John's Gospel (Chap. X, verse 20) "Deofol is on him and he wet" which in modern form is "He hath a Devil and is mad."

This accords with the medieval notion that evil or mischievous spirits were able to take over the bodies of people and to cause them to run amok or to behave irrationally. Little was understood of the range of mental afflictions and until comparatively modern times all epileptics, depressives, schizophrenics etc, were categorised mad or formerly as wud.

In many cases, no doubt, mental infirmity was sufficiently mild to allow its victims to remain in the community and not to be shut away. They were probably nothing more than simple-minded or just slow. Hence it is not surprising that they were nick-named wod and from which a corresponding surname eventually emerged. An attested instance occurred in Worchester [Ed: Worcester?] in 1221 where Adam Le Wode or Adam the mad is still something of a folk memory.

An echo of its former use remains in everyday modern English when we say mad to signify annoyance. "I wasn't half mad with the car this morning. It wouldn't start." Readers of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream (Act II, Scene 2) will recall how Demetrius says "Here am I and wood within the wood", which shows the word as still understood as annoyed even in Elizabethan times. Chaucer uses it to signify rash desires, as when he says(in modern idiom): Covetousness is always ill-judged.

Nevertheless it seems that wud was going out of use by the beginning of the 17th century, especially in the south of England. A travel book issued in 1627 stated: "In the Northern Parts of England, when they think a man is distracted or in a frenzy, they will say the man is Wood".

There certainly doesn't seem to have been any shortage of characters in medieval society who were deemed wood by their neighbours. There also seems to have been a slight trend towards the, use of Woody or Woodey in the northern counties. Hence Geoffrey Wody in Northumberland (1275) and Walter Woodey in Lancashire (1300) and a Richard le Wod in Dorset (1298).

In Scotland there was to be found a William Wod in Nairn (1296). It is probably only a coincidence but the earliest name mentioned in the Standard National Biographies is that of John Wood or Wode. He wrote a remarkable treatise on Mental Disorders in 1596.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 17th September 2001.

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