What’s in a name?


If you have anything less common than a Smith, Jones or Williams, looking into the origin of your family name can take you to some fascinating and unexpected places.

Up to the Medieval period, your surname would often be determined by your place of birth or your profession; Simon (of) Worcester, John Smith, Thomas Potter. War, invasion and conquest complicated matters by introducing foreign and aristocratic names; John of Ghent, Robert de Stogumber. Names are also compounded to indicate parentage – Johnson, Richardson (Icelanders carry this through to this day in spectacular fashion). Then you have names that are nouns in foreign languages, for example Engel (Angel).

Assimilation into the local culture often led to names being Anglicised to fit in with the native population. With literacy comes the additional problem of consistent spelling. Even William Shakespeare’s name appears with three different spellings in what we believe is his own handwriting. You can find amazing examples from US immigration records from Ellis Island through to present day where immigration officials to their best (or worst) to record entrants’ given names on official records, which names they are then stuck with for generations.

Surnames became more important when governments introduced personal taxation and wanted to ensure they collected the right amount from the right household. Surnames in every country have continued to “develop” often leading to multiple variants of the original spelling – particularly when faced with uncaring bureaucracy and semi-literate name-holders themselves.

Which brings us to Catling.

Neither a place name nor a profession, you do find references to a catling as a kitten or small cat and as a long, double-bladed surgical knife.

House of Names gives the following origin:

“It was among those Anglo-Saxon tribes that once ruled over Britain that the name Catling was formed. The name was derived from the Old French names Caterine and Cateline, which were forms of the personal name Catharine. These names were introduced into England in the 12th century and became very popular, especially in the variant forms Catelin and Cateline. Thus the surname Catling is a metronymic type of surname, and is derived from the name of the original bearer’s mother.

What isn’t clear is how this becomes a surname. House of Names first example reads:

The surname Catling was first found in Wiltshire. Some of the first records of the family were found her in the Hundredorum Rolls of 1273 that included early spelling of the name: Geoffrey Gatelin; and Johanna Gatelyn.

Which implies somewhere along the line, from Anglo-Saxon through Norman French through Middle English, a G became a C…?

SurnameDB moves this story on a little:

This unusual and interesting name derives from the Olde French name “Cat(e)lin”, itself coming from the Greek “Katharous” meaning “pure”. The surname from this source is first recorded at the end of the 12th Century (see below). One Robert Catyln appears in the 1441 Sheffield Manorial Records. On March 27th 1629, Ann Catling, daughter of John and Mary Catling, was christened at St. Olave’s, Mart Street, London, and on December 30th 1680, Mary Catling and Henry Randall were married at All Hallows, London Wall, also in London. The final “g” on the name is excrescent. It is interesting to note that the metronymics Catling, Marguerite, and Dyott, are believed to derive from the names of women who were either widows for the greater part of their adult lives, or else heiresses in their own right. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of William Catelin, which was dated 1198, witness in the “Fine Court Rolls of Norfolk”, during the reign of King Richard I…

Yet another tracing of the name produces the following:

Catlin, Catling, Cattlin

Katelina de Walcote 13th Rams (Hu); Katerina, Katelina de Sauston 1275 RH (Hu); Gervase, Robert Caterin Hy 2 Seals (Sr), 1247 AssBeds; William Catelin, Katelin 1198
FFNf; Robert Catyln 1441 ShefA; Richard Catlyng 1653 EA (OS) iv (C). OFr Caterine, Cateline, the French form of Catharine, introduced into England in the 12th century when it became popular, usually in the form Catelin(e)

There is an official Catling chivalric coat of arms which traces one branch back to French nobility. However, looking at nineteenth century census data, is seems the majority of Catlings were either domestic servants or general labourers. It’s surprisingly difficult to trace the family tree back to a common root so there’s no guarantee that the nobles and the later working class Catlings stem from the same ancestors.

I’ll have an heraldic shield, please. RC

Image credit: RedHickoryTree Tom Nagy / CC BY-SA. It’s a family tree.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?”

  1. “Reality is sequential, the screenplay is consequential”. A screenwriting lesson in a single sentence.

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