For some unknown reason there are people out there who to wish know what their ancestors were like. Who Do You Think You Are? remains popular well into its seventeenth series (or season, if you’re an American). Barely five minutes passes on the television before something pops up from Ancestry wherein some man with a Northern accent comments about how knowing his Great-Great-Grandfather was a baker or cannon fodder makes him feel complete. As for me, I don’t understand it. I don’t care to understand it, either. As far as it concerns me, the only reason to care about some long-dead ancestor is to learn that through some weird politicising I am the heir to some vast estate. Other than that, my connection to anybody is superfluous to me. Tell me, Danny—does your being related to Edward III and his ancestors get you anything beyond becoming the answer to the question: ‘Which Eastenders actor found out in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? that he was related to King Edward III’? No, Danny; no, it doesn’t. And what of the rest? Does knowing the place where your ancestors are from strengthen your own feelings for that area? My grandmother tells me that my ancestors are from Norway and I couldn’t tell you one thing about that country. Does knowing that your grandmother comes from—Oh, I don’t know—Bridlington and the other from Basildon explain why you like mixing your gravy-covered chips with Prosecco? I think not.
But, all the same, people do care. They spend hours looking for deceased family members, either on that Ancestry site or down the local record office—and when they do, they get in the way of me doing proper historical research. I had to wait forty minutes for a 14th-century charter from Edward II reconfirming the rights of the Portmen of Ipswich, all because some grey-haired banshee couldn’t figure out the difference between a capital M and a D in a 17th-century church record. Ms and Ds don’t even look the same. And why do they need to verify the letters? Because that’s how they search for the people—via their names. And then, for some even more confusing reason, they look to find the reason for why that family name is what it is.
I question what somebody gains from learning the reason for their name. Most of them seem so obvious. Anybody who needs to research the origin of the name Smith or Tanner or any name that ends in the postfix Son should first research sterilisation to discontinue their broken genes. (Though I do think an inquisition should began as to why the postfix daughter went out of use. Aside from taking up too much space on the birth certificate, that is.) Only those who have the prefix Fitz should really devote some time to family research. Somewhere down the line you were a bastard born of nobility: the legitimate line might have died out and you could perhaps have a claim to some house now in the hands of the National Trust or English Heritage. Anything that removes the ancient houses of our fair land from the clutches of those types is a worthy cause in my eyes.
What all this means is: the common names, the ones people to care to research, are already known. The job is done. The mission is complete. Stop wasting your time—and my time by extension by holding up the queue. As for the uncommon names: stop wasting your time—and by extension my time—on trying to solve some unsolved mystery. The mystery is probably unsolved because the solution was so mind-numbingly dull that nobody cared enough to remember the answer.
Take, for instance, this person, whose surname is Poppy. He has this surname by virtue of being born with it not because he chose it. The poppy is a common flower, one which this nation—and most others—holds dear for reasons we will never—nor are allowed to—forget. (I make a longer point on this in my book on Amazon, which you should buy so I can stop forcing in references to it.) Despite its prevalence in the world, Mr Poppy claims that the name itself is uncommon for a surname. He points to its origins as possibly coming from his German Jewish heritage, as perhaps a derivative of Bodebert, which is a name so stupid I refuse to believe anybody ever went by it and I’ve associated with people called Hubert. This Bodebert was then, by some tenuous link, anglicised into Poppy when the family emigrated to England. When he told me this hypothesis, I responded that he is neither German nor Jewish and that he should stop making up lies.
Or perhaps, though I doubt it, he is telling the truth. Or at least what he believes is the truth. For every name there is more than one origin. It is almost as if each person who has ever gone by a certain name has wanted to make it unique to them, to either bend its origin to their own personal circumstances, or out of some kind of contrarianism wherein they have to always be special and unique in every single facet of their life. In a way it is no different to the patricians of Rome claiming their ancestry from Jupiter or Minerva or, more angrily, Hades. Mr Poppy even suggested this dual origin himself by claiming heritage from some Scottish clan and then ranting about how that fact should allow him to vote in any upcoming Scottish independence referendum.
I find a dual origin in my own name, that is, of course, Lovatt. And those are just the tales of which I am personally aware. Because, as I said at the top, I do not care about ancestry and have no interest in looking up the reasons. Indeed, I only know of these two reasons because family members have in the past given me key rings bearing the name and meaning. One, on which there is also the alleged family crest of three animals—either lion or wolves or dogs—on a yellow background, (Hey George, want to know how I know where you got your inspiration for the Clegane crest?) that reads the following:
‘The surname of LOVATT was derived from the Old French louet, a baptismal name meaning the son of Love. The name was brought to England in the wake of the Norman Conquest of 1066.’A key ring on my wallet.
The second, however, says that the word means wolf cub, so who really knows? Perhaps it is one, perhaps it is the other; perhaps it is both, perhaps it is neither. I don’t know; and I don’t care. The one thing that both terms do agree on though: that the name is Norman. Thus I can say that I am of Norman stock. I can do nothing with this information. It changes my circumstances in no discernible way. All I can do is confirm that I am not some low Anglo-Saxon.
If it were still the days of feudalism, I might be able to do something with that. But no, we have to live in the age of democracy and pretend we’re all happy about it.