This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 2nd June 1997, 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 WRIGHT?

This name means "a skilled craftsman" and is derived from the sources which give us the expressions "to work" and "worker".

Toil and labour are so fundamental to the human condition that words which describe them have been among the first ever to evolve. Exactly where our forms originated is uncertain, but research gets us back to the region between the Urals and Carpathians.

From thence the terms were carried westward. In very Old Gothic we find "ga-waurki" while in Greek (where the "-k-" was often replaced by a gutteral "-g-"), it appears as "ergon" - hence "energy". The Gothic form can easily be followed through to the English "work" as well as the German "werk" and Scandinavian "verk".

Because "work" entered the language at so early a date, it was subject to an old grammatical rule which (expressed very simply) was that when mention was to be made of some action being done in the past, the middle part of the word was changed. In this case, "Work" became "wrought" - compare "teach" and "taught". However there was also an alternative rule which merely required the tagging on of a final "-d-", giving "worked".

It is certainly more easy to employ and it frequently arises in homely discourse - "I knowed it all the time" - not to mention Topsy's celebrated quote, "I just growed".

Both forms ran alongside and no special distinction between them seems to have existed. A translation of St. John's Gospel renders Chap. IX, v.6 as "He wrought mud of the spittle" (modernised), yet, about fifty years earlier (825) an old hymn contained the line, "My fingres worked upon ye harpe".

Probably the tendancy of speakers to give preference to the "-d" forms, even incorrectly, brought about the displacement of "wrought" because by the 1400's it was rapidly dropping out of general use. It still survived - even today - in contexts where whatever it is has been "worked" upon excites emotion. The first message sent by Morse Code was "What hath God wrought?" Items fashioned in valuable materials are frequently described as being "wrought" - rarely "worked". And a curious instance occurs when we say how somebody is "all worked up" or "over-wrought". In modern jargon, it seems that "wrought" went up-market and "worked" retained a lowly status!

This appears also to have happened with the word "wright" which can readily be seen to have been derived from the same sources. Both "wright" and "worker" also separated. Whereas the dropping of "wrought" in preference to "work" can be explained in terms of easier pronunciation and spelling, the emergence of "worker" and its displacement of "wright" is less evident.

Probably the structure of society had something to do with it. Throughout the Early Middle Ages a person's occupation often established his status and this accounts for many surnames such as Sherriff and Clarke. Since most people worked on the land and were classified as "peasants" the fact that they "worked" was so self- evident that it gave rise to no corresponding surname.

In fact "worker" as we would understand it today i.e. not a "boss", only began to enter the vocabulary during the 15th Century. In passing, the surname "Workman" (of which there are about a dozen in the neighbourhood) is interpreted as "ambidextrous".

Otherwise craftsmen were designated either as "smiths" or "wrights", and their specific trade was indicated by appropriate prefixes. In the case of Smiths, it was the material with which they worked - hence "Blacksmith", that is one who worked in "black metal" or one who constructed vehicles. As a very general statement, though, "Smith" tended to settle on the workers in iron, while "Wright" seems to have attached itself to carpentry.

Craftsmen who specialised in the making of agricultural equipment were designated "Ploughwrights (or "Plowrights") or "Wainwrights". Those who put together chests and strong-boxes were "Arkwrights"; makers of wheels were "wheelright's and housewrights millwrights and shipwrights are self-explanatory. However just as it was much easier to say "worked" rather than "wrought" so also was it more convenient to use the "-er" from the designate a worker.

Although, for example "hat-wright" is occasionally encountered in writing during the reign of Elizabeth I (when the wearing of hats was compulsory), it was rapidly superseded by "hatter". Only the older and well-established trades retained the use of "wright" and in fact the last profession, to be accorded, as it were the distinction, was "Playwright" in 1697.

Like "Smith" the adoption of "Wright" as a surname was only to be expected and it is among the most widely distributed names throughout England and Scotland. It also made its way across to Ireland. However some Irish speakers confused "wright" with "right" and took the Gaelic equivalent "Mac and Cheairt" and transmogrified it into "Kincart" which they then incorrectly translated back into "Wright". It is not so common in Wales where occupational names are not part of the Welsh tradition.

The earliest reference occurs in Sussex (1214) to a "Patere le Writh". Here in Derbyshire it dates from 1327. Exactly what skill was professed by all the early bearers of the name is not ascertainable. In the old registers, the Latin equivalent "faber" often appears alongside as a purported explanation but since it also occurs in connection with "Smith" we can get nowhere.

There are about 1000 entries altogether in the local directions under "Wright". There are several variations in the spelling but they are not significant. Because there was a tenden- cy for specific trades to pass on through families, the designation "-son" rarely occurs either in the case of "Smith" or "Wright. Where it does happen to a "Wright" it usually has been converted to "Wrixon" - which is not to be identified with "Rixon" which was quite a different origin.

The name has been borne by many celebrities of whom the Wright Brothers are universally esteemed as pioneers in aviation. For ourselves we have Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) - whose wonderful paintings, featuring artificial light, are acclaimed as masterpieces of the genre.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 2nd June 1997.

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