Recently I was delving into the origin of my last name: Smith. Really, that IS my last name- it’s not an alias!!!! To my knowledge, I am not a rogue computer program gone viral in The Matrix. Yet.
Anyway, my research into my Celtic roots uncovered some interesting findings, much of it stemming from my study of the Irish language. Smith. It is an internal understanding embedded into the collective unconscious that this refers to A smith; i.e. a blacksmith. Anyone who works metal is referred to as a smith; bladesmith, silversmith, goldsmith. etc. A common trade, so a common name. As the English language and Anglo-Saxon ‘English’ culture developed, professional trades became attached to names over time : a blacksmith became ‘John Smith’; a man who repaired roofs became ‘John Thatcher’ (to thatch, of course, is to repair a roof with reeds). If you brewed beers, your name became Brewer (the most popular family in any village!!!) A man who fletched arrows became ‘John Fletcher’, and so on. I discovered an anomaly with this, and I believe it is a result of English linguistic and cultural influence over parts of Ireland. A blacksmith in the Irish language is called ‘gabha’ (the bh compound in Irish is prounounced like a soft ‘v’, almost a ‘w’ sound. So it is pronounced ‘GA-wa’). Smith is simply the anglicized word for the very same trade and surname . Smith is derived from the Proto-Germanic word ‘smitþaz‘, meaning metal worker. * This is of course where we get the verb ‘to smite’, literally to hit. A blacksmith is one who ‘hits metal’ with a hammer to forge a weapon or tool. The Irish God of blacksmiths is Goibhnui (GO-vhnu), derived from gabha. Have you ever known anyone with the last name ‘Gowan’, or ‘MacGowan’? Yep. Their name is really SMITH; but they have the non-anglicized Irish or Scots version. In Welsh mythology, their God of Smiths is Gofannon, derived from the very same word ( Welsh is Brythonic, there are linguistic and ancient cultural cross-influences across the region). So, really Smiths EVERYWHERE. Seems you ‘cannae swing o’ wee caet ‘thout hetten a Smith!!!!!’ Jeez, maybe we ARE viral……..
* Remember that ‘English’ is NOT the native language of what we call Britain. It has of course evolved over 2 millenia, incorporating other linguistic dynamics. English is at its roots a West Germanic language originating from the areas we know as Jotland, Lower Saxony, and Frisia. This linguistic dynamic was brought to ‘Britain’ by conquering Anglo-Saxons after Rome abandoned the island. With the exception of being under Danish rule starting in the 9th century (Danelaw; yes, Vikings ruled parts of Britain for a time), Britain has technically been under Anglo-Saxon ‘Germanic’ rule for almost 2000 years. The native languages of Britain are in fact Brythonic in the south, and Goedelic in the north (considered ‘Insular Celtic’ languages. Welsh, Cornish, and Manx are Brythonic; Irish and Scottish are Goedelic). Incidentally, the name Britain itself is from the Pritanni tribe, which was the dominant tribe in the southern regions of the island. When the Romans invaded, they called them Britanni, and the island became Britannia.
I found some other interesting tidbits in my research of this (and researching for another project). Just for fun, I will share these as they tie in to what I am discussing:
- CORNWALL. This region of southwest Britain has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘corn’, or ‘walls’. The English name for this region; ‘ Cornwall’, is a compound of two ancient demonyms derived from two different language groups, one indigenous and one via occupation and subsequent attrition:
- Corn- originates from the above-mentioned Brythonic-speaking Pritanni people; the folk here were called Cornovii (“peninsula people”). This is from the Insular Celtic “kernou” (“horn” or “headland”). * This is actually a cognate with the Anglo-Saxon derived English word “horn” . The roots of this derive from the Proto-Indo-European word ker. (remember that though they evolved into very different language groups, both Germanic and Celtic languages have their roots in Proto-Indo-European). *Many modern Cornwall natives refer to their homeland by the original Cornish language Kernou.
- -wall derives from the Proto-Germanic word ‘walhaz’, which means “foreigner”. When the Anglo-Saxons swept into this part of Britain, they encountered Celtic folk, and ‘latinized’ Celts as a result of Roman occupation. So, this also would refer to ‘Roman’ in a broad sense. So, the people to the north of ‘Horn-walhaz’ ‘ they would also call ‘walhaz’; (i.e. a ‘welshman’). This is also found in other Germanic-influenced areas that saw a Roman presence: Wallachia (Romania), Wallonia, even English locations such as Walton . Which leads us to:
- Wales. This is the Germanic derived Anglo-Saxon word for this region, as described above. So, at its roots, the English name for this region can be taken to mean ‘place of Celts and Romans’; i.e NOT Saxons. The etymology of this word is believed to have evolved from the Anglo-Saxon proclivity to indiscriminately lump all Celtic Britons into one category (the Romans were also notorious for this). It also could have been derived from the Roman name for tribes of this area: Volcae. The native name for this region is actually Cymru, which is derived from the Brythonic word ‘combrogi’, meaning ‘fellow countrymen’. Many modern Welsh refer to their nation AS ‘Cymru’, rather than Wales. The Welsh language (or ‘Cymraeg’), has seen a resurgence in use, as have other Brythonic languages and cultural studies. If you look into Celtic nations, you will discover that, though its ancient roots are Brittonic Celtic, England itself is absolutely NOT NOT NOT considered a Celtic nation! As I discussed previously, England is technically an Angle and Saxon-occupied, Germanic speaking nation. England; from the Angles tribe, from the Jotland Peninsula and Frisia. By no means am I bashing Saxons or Angles, or folk who we refer to as Viking. Interesting histories and culture. I am just relating how history is replete with invasion and conquest, and how language dynamics change as a result. Hey, I have a bit of Scandinavian genes in my blood too, so yeah, SKOL! Of course, being predominately a Celt myself, I do feel a great deal of empathy for my ancient kin in these regions. Erin Go Bragh!!!! Sorry for the length of this, I get rolling and see interconnections and I just keep going. so, go get a beer! you earned it!