Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In 1857, a US scholar screwed up his Saxon

Ever since I've been interested in family history (that's to say, for over 30 years), I've wondered who was the shoddy scholar who created and spread the false idea that our family name, usually written as Skeffington, has something to do with sheep. Yesterday, I finally succeeded in identifying him, quite by chance. He was an American named William Arthur, and his Etymological Dictionary of Family and Christian Names was published in New York in 1857. Here is William Arthur's faulty explanation, which has spread throughout the domain of Skeffington history—over the last century and a half—like a mild virus:

He failed to see the difference, in written Saxon, between sheep and spears. I've summarized the correct situation in the form of two images:

Here are both words, presented in the celebrated Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by Bosworth and Toller:

 Click to enlarge

Furthermore, it's quite silly to use our modern term "town" for an 11th-century settlement in the woods. The chief of the settlement was simply named Sceaft (the Saxon word for a spear) in the same way that somebody today might be named Smith. But we might speculate that this Sceaft fellow had indeed earned this name through his skills as a spear-throwing warrior. On the other hand, there's no reason whatsoever to imagine stupidly that "Mr Spear" was a shepherd! Unfortunately, though, William Arthur's silly meme is not likely to disappear overnight.

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