A name may not matter, but it feels as if it does

I’ve been amusing myself for the last few minutes by looking up family names on this website, as commended by Robert Crampton in yesterday’s Times magazine. Very interesting, especially to see how some names were restricted to specific areas of the country in 1881 and have, since then, migrated all over the place. My own maiden name was well represented in the South-East then and now is not recorded – they need at least 100 people with that surname on the electoral register to be in their database. I suspected this, but it caused me a surprising pang to have it confirmed.

So I googled the name to cheer myself up and, to my surprise, found that there is a portrait of my great-great-great grandfather in the National Portrait Gallery. This is not as interesting as it sounds, as he is just one of the sitters for The House of Commons, 1833
by Sir George Hayter, along with several hundred other MPs of the time…I started to count the list of names but got bored at about 150 and gave up. I don’t expect g-g-g-grandad will be easy to pick out in that crowd, so I don’t suppose I’ll look the picture out when I next visit.

13 comments on “A name may not matter, but it feels as if it does

  1. Dandelion

    I never really saw the point of the surname profiler thingyboby. I mean it’s very nice and everything, but it promises something rather more personal and specific than it delivers. And even if you just look at it for what it is, well because surnames on the whole are only inherited through the male line, it paints a rather skewed picture, to my mind.

    I can’t believe it’s been suggested for research project of the year, when there are people dying of cancer, wars all over the shop, anti-social behaviour, prisons over-flowing and heaven knows what else. Outrageous really, when you think about it. I shall tell them so.

  2. Z

    A skewed picture, yes. I’m here, but my name isn’t because, for a generation or two, daughters were born. Nevertheless, I know so many people who are researching their family tree, so I think it could be of interest.

    It is quite striking to see how some names, at one time clustered in a fairly specific area, have spread over a hundred years. My great-grandmother, for example, was a Buchanan and, of course, they used to live in the Western half of Scotland. Now they are all over the place.

    I don’t know if it is an important project or not; how can you compare it to cancer research? Might they be able to track the spread of an inherited tendency to various illnesses? Will it be useful if they do?

    How can we know what research makes good use of public or private money? I’m quite keen on academic study for its own sake, but I’m old-fashioned. I don’t think much of the sort of research study that spends several earnest years proving something that we all knew anyway, but this isn’t in that sort of category.

    A research project on the causes of wars won’t actually stop the wars. Even if you come up with cause, effect, preventive measures, solutions, the sort of people who want war aren’t going to listen to theorists.

  3. Dandelion

    Sorry about posting twice there – I don’t know what happened. Do feel free to delete one…

    The thing is, I’ve dabbled a little myself in the tracing the ancestors thing, and I have to say, the surname profiler is worse than useless in that domain. It adds nothing as far as I can see to the whole endeavour.

    And I’m afraid I disagree that research for its own sake is necessarily a good thing. Unless it has a sensible rationale of course, but the only raison d’etre for this thing is to quantify and illustrate something that is already as plain as the nose on our face – people didn’t used to travel about much and now they do. It’s PR for geographers, and little more. Research that doesn’t tell us something we didn’t already know, or enable us to do something that we couldn’t already do strikes me as akin to fiddling while Rome burns. And I really would put this stuff in that category I’m afraid. I’m going to write to them and see if they can’t correct me on this. If I wanted to be generous, I could say that this research tells me that UCL has way too much money, but even that is something that I already knew.

    As for tracking the spread of inherited diseases, I sincerely doubt that plotting surnames on a graph would go very far in this department, especially since medical recording is dependent on the state of the knowledge at the time, so could hardly be treated as conclusive evidence of anything very much in the case of 1881. And even if they did, I certainly can’t think of how that would be useful to anyone. It’s like closing the stable door a hundred years after the horse has bolted.

    I’ll tell you what it’s like, it’s like stamp collecting – perfectly harmless and satisfying for its own sake, but still a fearful waste of time.

  4. Dandelion

    And it’s flawed and useless in any practical inferential sense, because it entirely overlooks the fact of maternal inheritance. It makes me really mad, can you tell?

  5. Z

    I’ve never traced any ancestors and I haven’t any plans to. I just looked up the names of my four grandparents, plus the double-barrelled one (in two parts) of a great-grandmother. It whiled away fifteen minutes or so on a Sunday afternoon and I found it quite interesting.

    I didn’t say ‘research’ for its own sake, I said ‘academic study’, which, to me means not quite the same thing. As for the usefulness of various areas of research, or quite a lot of the qualifications studied for at universities and colleges, I’d quite agree that it’s debatable, or dismissable.

    Funnily enough, I nearly used the fiddling while Rome burns analogy myself in my previous reply, but found myself disappearing up the fundament of my metaphor. It was (referring to the tendency of our world leaders to go to war) something along the lines that, whilst all the people with buckets use them to chuck petrol on the flames, playing the fiddle may not put them out either, but at least provides some study and some pleasure.

    You can see why I abandoned it.

    Your stamp collecting analogy is rather better. But we could say the same about an awful lot of interests. Would you really say that everything that is not immediately and visibly useful is, inevitably, a waste of time? If so, except for doing my biological duty by having children, and growing a lot of vegetables, much of my life has been wasted. All the reading, the hobbies, the music-making,the passions, sex that was not for the purpose of procreation, much of the work (for antiques are pretty useless). If you say that it’s all right because I paid my way and the researchers didn’t, I resent the use of my taxes being spent on many things (back to the war again, for instance) more than I do on rigorous academic research, and that evaluating things by a profit/loss spreadsheet is not my way.

    Maternal inheritance – well, nearly all of us took our names from our father. You can look up your maternal forebears’ name but, inevitably, that name will still be the name of her father. I don’t think there is a solution for that one – even in countries where a child takes the name of both parents, one of those names will be dropped for the next generation. If naming had gone down the maternal line, the blokes would, by now, be as angry about it as you are.

    Your argument is, of course, well-founded. I’d really only disagree with you in my reaction to the whole thing. And I do, as I said before, appreciate being challenged. I like it and I like you. Thanks.

  6. The Boy

    Hmm, thought I posted something, but it appears to have vanished. Story of my life at the moment!

    I actually found this site quite useful. I have dabbled in researching my ancestry, but am hampered somewhat by my paternal family line having been in Canada for upteen generations. We have a family legend that claims the grandfather paternus came from a certain region, but nothing beyond that. This little nugget of a site confirms the family name was localised around that region, so gives me some leeds.

    The joy of knowledge is you never know what results will lead onto the next great leap in knowledge (both personal and cultural). Serendipity has a valuable role to play in acedemia, science and general life. Our current society rests on the results of people researching for its own sake and finding wonderful things.

  7. The Boy

    Darn, that lecturn just appeared under my feet again. It just seems to keep happening. Z, you mustn’t just leave it about like that, far to great a temptation. Is there such a thing as lecturers anonomous? Must go sign up…

  8. Z

    Heh heh, you two. You are both so great! I’m retiring from this conversation* now and I’ll leave you to it…

    *without preudice

  9. Dandelion

    Well, I did notice that you said “academic study”, but I wasn’t sure if it was a synonym or non-sequitur, since it was the research I’d been specifically objecting to. Personally, I’m all for academic study, but this thing does not appear to be terribly rigorous, at least in the logic with which it attempts to sell itself. And that really gets my goat. Have you seen the wishy-washy claptrap on their website?

    I’m actually not angry about surnames being traditionally inherited from the father per se. But it does make quite a difference to my mind in terms of the puported and possible utility of this particular research. It’s flawed in virtually every use you could possibly put it to.

    I wouldn’t say that all things not immediately and visibly useful are a waste of time, no. And I also wouldn’t say that entertainment, personal satisfaction or pleasure are by definition wasteful either. I think what I’m objecting to is that the family names bit of the spatial analysis thingyboby claims to be rather more useful than it actually is. Yes, I think that’s it.

    Having said all that, I think I’d feel a bit sad with myself if I thought the only thing that might ever be my epitaph was “hasn’t she got a lot of stamps?” D’you know? I’d really like to put back a bit more than that. Make some small difference.

    Thanks for letting me rant, I’ll keep it short from now on 🙂

  10. Z

    Mm, eggs…

    Do rant – I love a passionate and well-reasoned rant.

    My epitaph will be “D’you suppose she actually read all those books?”


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