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NAMES: The secularization of



When I was young, people in England had a Christian name and a surname. In the US it was "first name". Now I have a form from Magdalen College, Oxford with one line for "forenames". Who thought that up? Why did the Brits not adopt "first names"? What is the usage in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India? The Oxford English Dictionary has this entry:

A person's first or ‘Christian’ name; in Rom. Ant. = PRÆNOMEN.
1533 CATH. PARR tr. Erasm. Comm. Crede 74 The name and the forename of Pylate.
1610 HOLLAND Camden's Brit. 320 His sonne, carrying the same fore-name [Bartholomew].
a1656 USSHER Ann. VI. (1658) 753 It was provided by an Edict, that none of that family should have the forename of Marcus. 1716 M. DAVIES Athen. Brit. III. Crit. Hist. 99 The Ancient Roman Women had a Fore-name, or a Christen-Name besides their Sir Name. 1870 SWINBURNE Ess. & Stud. (1875) 34 The counsellor whose name is Reason, whose forename is Interest. 1883 Academy 15 Dec. 394 Mary Martha Brooke, whose twofold fore-name is intended to symbolise her character.

So the word has along history, even though I had never heard it. That takes us to Surname, i.e. last name. Sir name? See Swinburne, above. The OED gives the earliest entry thus:

(1) ?a616 earl, n. cases a surname is used instead (as Earl)

So "surname" was originally a "Sir name". As ancient as the very British "Esq". Anyone who is anyone is an "Esq". I remember one Brit, a parvenu and arriviste, to whom I sent a letter addressed to "Mr. Joe Doakes". (I must look that up some time). He was furious because I had not addressed him as "Esq."

In the US. "Esq" is reserved for lawyers. There are some distinguished American WAISers, including Tom Campbell, Esq. and Hank Greely, Esq. I hope they will forgive me if I do not give them the proper salutation.

Ronald Hilton - 12/3/01


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