Manifest Derivation 
or the precipitation of U surnames into the non-U abyss

ulmer-dogge-merck-1705b

I am his highness' dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

                     ~ Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
... epigram engraved on the collar of a dog
which I gave to His Royal Highness
(Frederick, Prince of Wales).

Painting: Ulmer Dogge (1705)
by Johann Christof Merck (1695–1726)
Jagdschloss Grunewald, Berlin

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... and thus Mowbray sunk,
through various stages of decadence into Briggs.

So many of us get caught up in variant spellings of surnames, as well we should. Is the patronymic Mac, or should it be Mc? Is one Irish and the other, Scottish? My ancestor spelt his name, Huggins, as Huggan without the s—does that matter? Briggs is the same as Bragg, well, ... isn't it? Sometimes we get too bound up with questions pertaining to spelling variants, when we should be consulting the records, cross-referencing and analyzing the data, and examining the evidence in toto.

The following article puts the question into a rather different perspective. I found it while casting a net into The British Newspaper Archives for the Huggins surname. This find in the search results was a pleasant and very amusing surprise. Please note that the article, transcribed below, is and must only ever be, filed under the heading, humour with a satirical bent.

Nothing more need be said of the Manifest Derivation of our humble surnames from those which occupy the lofty sphere of the nobility and the gentry than the insightful erudition rendered by Punch, and published in the 29th May 1852 edition of the Dublin Weekly Nation:

Source: Dublin Weekly Nation, 29 May 1852. "Equality of Names." (satire) Digital copy online at The British Newspaper Archive, www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk (accessed 2016-01-01, by subscription).

   Equality of Names.——By great ingenuity our zetetic and antiquarian contemporary, Notes and Queries, derives the very plebeian name of Snooks from the rather patrician one of Sevenoaks. We can understand how the one degenerated into the other. No doubt many another name may have been corrupted in the same way, and vulgar as it is thought now, may be traceable to the root of a high family tree. There is Buggins. That evidently comes from Burgoyne. As thus——Burgoyne, Burgoyne's (the son of Burgoyne), Burgons, Buggons, Buggins. What confirms this view is the fact that we find Higgins, a cognate patronymic, in the transition state——like a frog with a tail, not quite changed from tadpole——spelt Higgons, in course of decline from Hugo; as Hugo, Hugo's, Hugons, Huggons, Higgons, Higgins. From the same origin is also manifestly derived Huggins——formed in some particular instance instead of Huggons from Hugons. There can be little question that Brown comes from Biron or Byron; and that not very remotely——Byron, B'ron, Brown. Briggs may easily be deduced from Mowbray. One of the early Mowbrays, who could read and write imperfectly, spelt his name Mowbrag, confounding y with g. A descendant of his, very subject to influenza, used to call himself Browbrag. In the course of time, an elision occurred, first of the w, making Bobrag, and then of the o, reducing the name to Bbrag, with two b's; as that of French is sometimes written Ffrench. A subsequent member of the family, who was not a man of letters, struck off a b, and cut it down to Brag——another, more addicted to letters than literature, added a g, and made it Bragg. By the conversion of a vowel, it became Brigg; lastly, some gentleman bearing it, who rejoiced in the genitive case or the plural number, put an s to it; and thus Mowbray sunk, through various stages of decadence into Briggs. In the same manner it would not be very difficult to trace Pott up to Plantagenet. These considerations show that there is not so much difference between the nobility and the mobility as the former imagine——and further, that the Snookses and Briggses, and other individuals of the people, may boast with truth of the very longest pedigrees, inasmuch as it has required many generations for such names as Briggs and Snooks to descend from Sevenoaks and Mowbray.——Punch.

Transcriber's notes:

  • Punch was a magazine of humour and satire that ran from 1841–2002.
  • Notes and Queries is a journal of similar long standing, dedicated to answering readers' questions about "English language and literature, lexicography, history, and scholarly antiquarianism.” Online at http://nq.oxfordjournals.org (accessed 2016-09-25).
  • "U or non-U," a blog article by Andy Gryce, and posted to his website,
    Pocket Book: unconnected jottings (28 July 2015).

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"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."—Lesley Poles Hartley (1895–1972), The Go-Between (1953).

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