What’s in a name?

What's in a name? A family treeWhat’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.

The Time, the Place

Up to the Medieval period, surnames would often derive from 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. Compound names then 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 leads to name adaptations 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 find amazing examples from US immigration records from Ellis Island through to present day where immigration officials do their best (or worst) to record entrants’ given names on official record. Recorded in official papers, it sticks 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 find references to a catling as a kitten or small cat. It is also 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 found in the Hundredorum Rolls of 1273… 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…?

More than one source

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. On December 30th 1680, Mary Catling and Henry Randall married at All Hallows, London Wall, also in London. The final “g” on the name is excrescent.

The first recorded spelling of the family name is that of William Catelin, …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)

Root and Branch

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. 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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