Category: names and naming

Top Ten Most Common Pub Names in England

By , November 28, 2010 1:46 am


Public houses, better known as pubs, are a ubiquitous and important feature in England’s community life. And each pub has a name.

Roaming around the country, the same pub names crop up again and again, along with the unusual and unique.

Many pub names are centuries old.

This article tells you what the ten most popular pub names are in England, and the origins of each name.


1. Crown

The Crown is, perhaps not surprisingly in a Kingdom, the most popular name for a pub in England. There are 704 pubs in England called The Crown, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).

The origin is, as might be supposed, a demonstration of loyalty to the Crown, The name became particularly popular for public house owners after the Restoration in the 17th century, when King Charles II returned to his throne following the Commonwealth lead by Oliver Cromwell.

There are other variations on the same theme which are common, such as the popular pub names Rose and Crown and Three Crowns. When I was a teenager, I used to visit the Crown and Anchor, in London Bridge, with my mates.

John of Gaunt's Coat-of-Arms, featuring red lions

John of Gaunt's Coat-of-Arms, featuring red lions


2. Red Lion

Lions are common animals in heraldic symbols, and many pubs were named after a local noble’s coat-of-arms.

It never hurt to keep the local powers-that-were happy, so naming the local inn or tavern after Lord Such-and-Such’s arms or heraldry was a common practice.

The 668 Red Lion pubs in England therefore probably have several origins, including John of Gaunt’s coat of arms, and King James I’s liking of the symbol.

Once again there are variations on the name – a pub near where I live is called Old Red Lion, for example.

The Old Red Lion pub stored Oliver Cromwell’s body overnight, when King Charles II had it dug up from Westminster Abbey so he could stick it on a spike on London Bridge.

Son of Royal Oak

Son of Royal Oak

3. Royal Oak

This is another popular pub name with strong links to the Restoration of the Monarchy.

In 1649, Charles I was executed. His son, the future King Charles II, carried on the fight against the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell.

Two years later, Charles lost the battle of Worcester, and his army was thrashed by the Puritan New Model Army.

In the course of his escape, Charles II spent 24 hours hiding in the branches of an oak tree in Boscobel Wood, while the nearby Boscobel House was searched by Commonwealth troops.

The Royal Oak itself is no more, but Son of Royal Oak and Grandson of Royal Oak continue in the family tradition, growing cheerfully in Boscobel Wood.  The picture to the right of this text is of Son of Royal Oak.

As well as pubs, the Royal Navy has had 8 different ships called HMS Royal Oak since the Restoration.

There are, CAMRA claims, 541 Royal Oak pubs in England.

To read more about the Battle of Worcester, which preceeded Charles II hiding up the Royal Oak, see the Battle of Worcester Society’s website.

The Standard of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, featuring a white swan

The Standard of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, featuring a white swan

4. Swan

The Swan is both a royal bird, and a common feature on heraldic symbols.

King Henry IV’s mother, Mary de Bohun, had a swan on her coat-of-arms, and the Lancastrian Kings adopted the swan as one of their symbols.

The Swan was also used by the Earl of Warwick, and the Duke of Buckingham, among others.

There are 451 Swan pubs in England, and others with the word in their names, such as Black Swan and Swan With Two Necks

5. White Hart

The White Hart was part of the heraldic symbols of Richard II. King Richard II was not a particularly popular King.

King Richard II's Coat-of-Arms, with two white harts

King Richard II's Coat-of-Arms, with two white harts

He came to the throne in 1377, on the death of his grandfather, King Edward III, when he was aged 10.

In 1399, he was deposed by his first cousin, King Henry IV, son of John of Gaunt.

It might therefore appear surprising that White Hart pubs are the fifth most common – there are 431 of them in England.

However, it was during the reign of Richard II that a statute was passed saying that all public houses and taverns had to have a sign outside. As a result, many of the inns, pubs and taverns of the time put up a sign showing the White Hart.

6. Railway

Number six on the list is the Railway pub. The origins of this are, I hope, entirely obvious! There are 420 pubs in England called the Railway.

7. Plough

The 413 pubs in England called the Plough are named after the farming implement, or after the constellation of stars known as the Plough. Pub signs, therefore, can have either the farming tool, or 7 stars, painted on them.

There are also pubs with other agricultural names, such as the Harrow pub, and the Seven Stars pub at the back of the Royal Courts of Justice in London is named after the same constellation.

the Uffington White Horse in Berkshire, seen from above

the Uffington White Horse in Berkshire, seen from above

8. White Horse

The 379 pubs in England called the White Horse are named after one of three things. Firstly, the name is particularly common in the county of Kent, south-east of London. Kent’s symbol is a rearing white horse.

Others are named after the hill drawings across southern England which feature horses.

From the Iron Age onwards, people have carved giant white horses in the chalk downs and hills, by removing the grass and top soil to reveal the white chalk underneath.

Coat-of-Arms of the House of Hanover, featuring a white horse

Coat-of-Arms of the House of Hanover, featuring a white horse

The Uffington Horse is a famous example, and there are about 14 white chalk horses in Wiltshire.

When Queen Anne died, the House of Hanover came to the throne in the person of King George I.

The Hanoverian coat-of-arms included a white horse, and some pubs were named after it, to demonstrate how overjoyed the public house’s landlord was with the new regime.

If you want to read more about Queen Anne and why the Stuarts gave way to the House of Hanover, read this article:

Queen Anne’s Tragedy: 18 Pregnancies, no Children & Hanover Kings

9. Bell

The 378 pubs in England named the Bell are named after the country’s ubiquitous church bells.

Variations are also common, such as the Smarden Bell, or the Bell and Clapper.

New Inn, Tresco, Isles of Scilly

New Inn, Tresco, Isles of Scilly

10. New Inn

There are many places or buildings called “New” in England which are anything but. Some of the 372 New Inn pubs are among them.

New College Oxford, for example, where my brother-in-law studies medicine, is one of the oldest colleges at Oxford University, founded in 1379. But it’s not the oldest college, hence the name.

The picture to the right is of New Inn on Tresco, one of the Isles of Scilly, 30-odd miles to the west of Land’s End in Cornwall.

Note on the Most Common Pub Names

Exactly what is a pub, as opposed to a restaurant, hotel, or B & B, is open to debate. So different organisations vary as to their views on which are the most common pub names in England.

The list, and figures above for the number of each name, are taken from the Campaign for Real Ale’s figures. You can find CAMRA’s website by clicking here.

The Inn Sign Society has a different top ten list, namely:
1 Red Lion
2 Crown
3 Royal Oak
4 Rose & Crown
5 Kings Head
6 White Hart
7 Queens Head
8 Railway
9 Bell
10 Swan



Coppers, the Old Bill, PC Plod and other police slang

By , April 15, 2010 1:58 am

Your average police constable is known by a host of slang names. “The copper, a member of the Old Bill’s local nick, is nicking a local toe-rag after his nark gave tipped him the wink…..”

This post is a (roughly) alphabetical guide to police-related slang in England. It’s based on those I’m familiar with, and therefore probably London-biased.

Blue and twos A police car with both blue lights flashing and siren going.

Bobby A fairly affectionate way of referring to a policeman – usually in the phrase “we need more bobbies on the beat”, meaning more policemen wandering round the streets keeping an eye on things.  The origin is the man Sir Robert Peel, who set up the Metropolitan Police at the start of the 19th century; Bobby is short for Robert.

Boys in Blue The police in general, what with them having blue uniforms….

Copper Like “cop”, and probably from the same origin. A copper is someone who cops someone, or grabs him.

Filth A London word for a police officer or police in general.

Grass A police informant. Also a noun, “he grassed me up”, meaning told the police about an offence. A supergrass was, in the 1980s, an IRA informant who turned Queen’s Evidence and gave evidence against other IRA members, and is now more generally used for a serious informant who gets a lot of nasty people nicked. The origin’s not entirely clear. Here’s a BBC article about two recent supergrasses in Northern Ireland.

Jam Sandwich An armed police response vehicle, which has huge red, orange and yellow stripes all over it.

Nick (noun) A police station – “he’s in Holborn nick” means that he is locked up in Holborn police station.

Nick (verb) / Nab Either to steal (he nicked it from the supermarket) or arrested, Q “What’s he been nicked / nabbed for?” A. “Assault”.  The origin of “nick” is a 15th century English word meaning a groove or notch. “Nab” probably has a common origin with “nap”, meaning to grab (as in “kidnap”).

(The) Old Bill Either an individual policeman, or several, or the police force as a whole. As in, “watch him, he’s Old Bill”, or “Let’s run, the Old Bill’s arrived”. The origin’s unknown – the Metropolitan Police’s website suggests 13 (!) possible origins here. For the last 20 years or so, there’s been a several-times-a-week ITV programme called “The Bill”.

PC Plod An uncomplimentary term for a police constable, suggesting someone plodding around slowly and not very usefully. May come from Enid Blyton’s Noddy books. Or may not.

Rozzers A London term for the police, fairly old-fashioned, now.

Snout – another term for a police informant.

Toe-rag A low-life who is probably a crook of some description. Often used in TV programmes at times of day when “little shit” is ruled out because children might be watching.

Naming the days – the heathen origins of English words for days of the week

By , October 7, 2009 2:39 am

Pagan gods, symbolism, and the days of the week

The names for the different days of the week in English are of ancient, and entirely heathen, origin. When we talk of Monday, Thursday or Saturday, we are talking of the days of different Gods or elements.

Some countries and languages renamed the days after Christianity took hold – for example, in Russian, “Monday” was renamed to be “the day after Sunday”, rather than acknowledging that awful, pre-Christian, moon-adoration.

Not English, though. It stuck thoroughly to the moon, and Roman and Saxon Gods.

Roman Latin and Church Latin

Throughout this post, when I’ve referred to the Latin words for a day of the week, I mean the Roman Latin words.

The Church didn’t approve of all these pagan days, and therefore medieval Latin names for the days of the week were different, and duller, mostly “first day, second day” and so forth.

The child that is born on the Sabbath day, is bonny and blithe, and good and gay

The origin of “Sunday” is as straight-forward as it appears – it is the day of the sun.  English is far from alone in using this – in Latin, Sunday was dies solis, and in Old English, the word was Sunnandæg, both meaning, “day of the sun”.

Sunday has often also been called “the Sabbath”, or “the Lord’s Day”, particularly in medieval times.

Monday’s child is fair of face

“Monday” is the day of the moon – from the Old English m?nandæg and m?ndæg, both meaning “Moon Day”. This followed a long Indo-European notion of calling the day after the moon – in Latin, for example, the day is dies lunae, or “day of the moon”.

Tuesday’s child is full of grace

The Norse god Tyr (Tiw) from a 1750s Icelandic illustration

The Norse god Tyr (Tiw) from a 1750s Icelandic illustration

English departs from Latin (and many other European languages)  in naming this day of the week – in Latin, it was Martis dies, the day of Mars, a Roman god.

In English, however, “Tuesday” is the day of the Saxon god Tiw, known in Norse languages as Tyr.

The Old English word was tiwesdæg , and we still celebrate this Saxon god of war and single combat weekly, on his day.

At one time, Tiw seems to have been more important in the collection of Norse and Saxon gods than Odin and Thor, but became less significant over time – effectively he was demoted and down-graded, by about 400 AD. In late Icelandic legend, he became the son of Odin.

There are places in England which are probably also named after Tiw, such as Tuesley and Dewsbury.

Wednesday’s child is full of woe

A 12th century Swedish tapestry, probably showing Odin, Thor and Freyja

A 12th century Swedish tapestry, probably showing Odin, Thor and Freyja

Wednesday is another Anglo-Saxon’s god’s day – this time, the day of Woden. In Latin, Wednesday was dies Mercurii, the god Mercury’s day, and that is reflected in Romance languages such as French.

Woden, who replaced Tiw as head honcho in the god spectrum, is related to the Norse idea of Odin, but isn’t quite the same.

Woden was, like Odin, the god who carried away the dead, but he also lead the Wild Hunt (among many others who sometimes lead the Wild Hunt, a belief which continued for centuries after England became Christian). For more detailed information on the legends of the Wild Hunt, see this article.

As well as being a god, he was said to have been an ancient King.  Anglo-Saxon Kings claimed descent from Woden, as part of their claim to power.

Woden-the-historic-King was supposed to have had four sons, each of whom founded one of the four main Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses – Kent, Wessex, Mercia, and East Anglia.

Woden’s name also survives in English place names, such as Wednesfield, Wensley, and Wednesbury.

Thursday’s child has far to go

Drawing of a 4.6 cm gold-plated silver Mjolnir pendant found in Sweden (image is in the public domain)

Drawing of a gold-plated Mjöllnir pendant found in Sweden (image is in the public domain)

Thursday is another Anglo-Saxon god’s memorial day, this time Thor, who together with Odin / Woden, replaced Tiw in the Anglo-Saxon patheon of gods during the Dark Ages.

The Old English word Þunresdæg is the root, as Þunor was the Old English name for the god, Thor.

As in Tuesday and Wednesday, the Latin name for Thursday was different. In Roman times, Thursday was Iovis Dies or “Jupiter’s day”, and Romance languages have followed this root, on the whole, such as the French word, Jeudi.

Thor was, among other attributes, the god of thunder, and the very word, “thunder” derives from the god’s name.

Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir, is a magical weapon used particularly for fighting giants,  which returns to its owner after being thrown, and creates lightening bolts.  Mjöllnir is frequently found depicted in both Norse and Anglo-Saxon art and jewellery.

That Thor and Woden were among the most important Anglo-Saxon gods can be seen from an oath of baptism into Christianity. This was recited to and then by those Saxons converting from paganism to the Church. In Old English, the oath is:

ec forsacho allum dioboles uuercum and uuordum, Thunaer ende Uuöden ende Saxnote ende allum them unholdum the hira genötas sint

which, in modern English, is:

I forsake all the words and works of the devil, Thunear [Thor], Woden and Saxnot, and all those fiends who are their associates

There are lots of places in England named after Thor, such as Thundersley, in Essex, Thurstaston, near Liverpool, and also places such as Thurso, in Scotland.

Friday’s child is loving and giving

A 5th century token, found in Germany, thought to show Frigg

A 5th century token, found in Germany, thought to show Frigg

Friday is named after yet another Anglo-Saxon god, or in this case, goddess, Frige. She is also known in other Germanic languages as Frigg, or Frija.

She was the goddess of love, and appears to combine two different romantic and love goddesses from Norse and Scandinavian gods, Freyja and Frigg.

In Roman Latin, Friday, dies Veneris, was the day of the planet Venus, and once again, languages such as French have followed this root.

Saturday’s child works hard for his living

Saturday is the only day  of the English week named after  a Roman god. Dies Saturni means “Saturn’s Day”.

The old English word, from which modern English derives, was Sæternesdæg.

The planet Saturn was also named after the Roman god Saturnus, who was the god of  both agriculture / farming, and justice.

Saturday was the first day in the Roman week.

The origin of English surnames 2: patronymics or father’s first name

By , July 21, 2009 2:20 am


In the Origin of English surnames 1: work and status, I included a general summary of the history of English surnames, and how they came into being in 11th century AD, and became normal, in the 13th and 14th centuries, for the whole English population.

The first post in this series was about surnames deriving from occupations, work, trades, and status.

Just as in the case of people named after their trades (John the Baker, or Henry the Carpenter) a father’s name was often used to tell different people with the same name apart.  So a village might have had John, son of David / Davidson as well as John the Baker and John from-another-village.

As trades turned into surnames, the son of John the Baker came to be known as Henry Baker, even if he made barrels for a living.  Similar, John Davidson’s son became Henry Davidson, instead of Henry Johnson.

Adding -son to the end of a first name

Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, illegitmate son of Henry VIII

Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, illegitmate son of Henry VIII

In England, the most common patronymic (or matronymic, as some surnames derived from a mother’s name)  surname was to add “son” to the end of a name.

If the father’s name was a long-ish one, such as Andrew, Simon or William, it was often contracted over time in the surname. The following “son” names are all among the most common 100 surnames in England today:

  1. Anderson (Andrew’s son)
  2. Harrison (Harry’s son)
  3. Jackson
  4. Johnson
  5. Richardson
  6. Robertson
  7. Robinson
  8. Simpson (Simon’s son)
  9. Thompsom / Thomson (Thomas’ son)
  10. Watson (Wat was a common name in the 14th century, for example, Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in the 1380s. Wat was sometime short for Walter, sometimes a name on its own)
  11. Wilkinson (son of Wilkin, often short for William)
  12. Wilson (son of Will or William)

Contractions of “son”

Sometimes the English “son” suffix just became an “-s” or “-es” at the end of a surname. Both version often survive, so “Harris” and “Harrison” or “Roberts” and “Robertson” are both found frequently, and were often used by the same family interchangeably in the 14th or 15th centuries.

The “s” or “es” endings were more common in Wales, so many modern surnames with this ending are either more Welsh than English in origin, or are both. “Jones” is an example of a surname which is usually thought of as Welsh (and there are one hell of a lot of Welsh Joneses) but it was also sometimes used in England instead of “Johnson”.

The following surnames are in the top 100 today:

  1. Adams (English)
  2. Davis (son of David, also sometimes Davies, both English and Welsh)
  3. Edwards (occasionally Welsh, more often English, probably because Edwardson is a bit of a mouthful)
  4. Evans (son of Evan, a mostly-Welsh first name originally spelled Ifan, and a version of John)
  5. Griffiths (son of Griffith, a Welsh name and /or title meaning “Lord”" or Master”)
  6. Hughes (son of Hugh, English and Welsh)
  7. Jones (son of John or Jonathan, also a very common Welsh surname)
  8. Matthews (mostly English, can be Welsh)
  9. Phillips (mostly Welsh, but a few English origins)
  10. Roberts (English sometimes, more often Welsh in origin)
  11. Rogers (English)
  12. Stevens (son of Stephen, mostly English, sometimes Welsh)
  13. Williams (both English and Welsh)

The Norman “Fitz”

King Henry II, often known as Henry Fitzempress before he became King

King Henry II, often known as Henry Fitzempress before he became King

The Norman word “fitz”, similar to the French “fils”, for “son of” was commonly found in 11th and 12th century families.

It wasn’t always used in relation to a first name, though. Henry II, for example, was often known as “Henry Fitz Empress” before he became King, because his mother, Matilda, had been Empress of the Germans by a first marriage.

Some surnames developed out of this, such as the current UK names Fitzgerald and Fitzalan, neither of which is particularly common, but both of which certainly still exist.

The use of Fitz as a patronymic surname was most often retained by Anglo-Irish families, for some reason.

Over time, “fitz” came to be used as “son of royalty” rather than son of any old person. It was used for royal bastards, often.  Examples include Richard Fitzroy, illegitimate son of King John, Henry Fitzroy, illegitimate son of Henry VIII and some of Charles II’s many bastards. “Roy” in this sense derives from the Norman French for “King”.

Welsh surnames from a father’s first name

Welsh surnames deriving from a father’s first name (or, occasionally, a mother’s) often used the “s” or “es” suffix as above. Others used “ap”, meaning “son of”. There are still some examples of UK surnames with “ap” in them, for example, the Welsh actress Llinor ap Gwynedd, and the BBC Wales journalist Iono ap Dafydd.

More frequently, the “ap” became subsumed into a single surname, such as the following which are still surnames in the UK today:

  1. Bevan (from ap Evan)
  2. Bowen (from ap Owen)
  3. Price (from ap Rhys, or Reece)
  4. Pritchard (from ap Richard)
  5. Probert (from ap Robert)
  6. Pugh (from ap Hugh)

    Continue reading 'The origin of English surnames 2: patronymics or father’s first name'»

The origin of English surnames 1: work and status

By , June 14, 2009 3:44 am

A brief history of surnames in England

Surnames, in the sense of a fixed family name which passed down through the generations, came to England from the 11th century onwards, and  pretty much universally during the 13th and 14th centuries.

In most towns, villages and areas before that, people would often have extra tags added to their names. If a village had 6 men called John in it, people would talk about John the Baker, John by the Church, John the Tall, and so forth. But John the Baker’s son Henry would, if he became a carpenter, be Henry the Carpenter, as an adult, not Henry Baker.

William Rufus, King of England, from a contemporary illustration

William Rufus, King of England, from a contemporary illustration

Surnames started off as an aristocratic idea – there may have been a few in Anglo-Saxon times, but the Norman Barons who came over with William the Conqueror really kicked it off.

William is a great example of pre-surnames – he was William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard, to his detractors) but his son, who followed him as King, was William Rufus (the red) because he had red hair or a red face. William the Conqueror’s next son to become King of England, Henry I, was commonly called Henry Curthose, because he wore short-lenght hose on his legs.

Occupational surnames

Many English surnames derive from occupations. As the 13th and 14th centuries drew on, John the Baker’s son was called Henry Baker, even if he followed another trade altogether.

The most common English surname today is “Smith”, as blacksmiths, goldsmiths, silversmiths and so forth were abundant across England.

Obvious occupation-related surnames

Other fairly common surnames show an obvious link to trades and occupations:

  • Archer
  • Baker
  • Carter
  • Cook
  • Carpenter
  • Driver
  • Miller
  • Taylor
  • Weaver

Obsolete occupations and words

In many cases, surnames come from occupations which don’t exist any more, or where the word for the occupation has changed over time, and therefore the origin of the surname isn’t obvious.

A 16th century Fuller at work

A 16th century Fuller at work

Examples include:

  • Arkwright
  • Bailey
  • Barker
  • Cartwright
  • Chapman
  • Cooper
  • Fletcher
  • Fuller
  • Turner
  • Wainwright
  • Ward
  • Wheelwright
  • Wright

“Bailey” is a corruption of “Bailiff”, a person who helped establish law and order, and often helped run a large, powerful aristocratic or gentry household.  Bailliffs were also Royal Officials in towns and shires, to help keep the King’s Peace.

A barker was a man who tanned leather – so the surnames “Tanner” and “Barker” have a common origin. Tanning leather was a filthy line of work, involving rotting animal remains, and urine and dog muck used to cure the skins.

A chapman was a man who sold things, often a travelling salesman with a pack full of items such as needles, thread, and nails.

A cooper had an important job in any community, he made barrels. Many things were stored in barrels – beer, ale, wine, salt, flour and grain, for example. “Cooper” is a common English surname, as lots of barrels were made and used.

Fletchers made arrows, a now obsolete term. “Fletching” applied specifically to the process of balancing the arrow with fins or feathers, but the term “Fletcher” was used for arrow-makers in general.

“Turner” means a man who turned things on a lathe, usually to create wooden objects such as table-legs or poles.

“Ward” comes from someone who guarded or protected something, often a town’s or city’s walls. Similar words such as “warden” have a common origin.

"The Hay Wain", an 1821 painting by John Constable

"The Hay Wain", an 1821 painting by John Constable

“Wright” means a person who makes things, from the Old English word wryhta, meaning “worker”. So an Arkwright made chests and cupboards, a Cartwright made carts,  a Wainwright made wagons or carts (from an old word wain, meaning wagon / cart) and a Wheelwright made wheels.

False Friends

Some surnames look obvious, such as “Walker”, but the origins are actually different from what we might suppose. The surname Walker doesn’t derive from someone walking for a living, or being a messenger. A walker was a man who helped full cloth, that is, turn it into tougher, less shrinkable woolen material. It comes from the Middle English word walkcere, meaning a man who fulls cloth with his feet. The surnames “Fuller” and “Tucker” refer to men who worked in fulling cloth, too.

“Butler” is another false friend – it is partly an occupational surname, from the Old French word bouteillier, or servant in charge of wine supplies. There is a separate origin for the surname for descendants of Theobald Walter, who was a 12th century politician.

Status surnames

Many surnames appear to show a high-ranking status, such as Bishop, Lord, Duke, and King. In most cases, the surname was started by a man who was in the employ or service of a Lord or Bishop, rather than actually being one himself.

For the next blog post in this series, please see:  Origin of English surnames 2: patronymics or father’s first name

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