Hydronyms: The Occupational and the Toponymic

In 1732 Thomas Fuller wrote his book of aphorisms, Gnomologia, “We never know the worth of water till the well runs dry.”

The American anthropologist and nature writer Loren Eiseley wrote “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

And of course the famous quote “Where there is water there is life” has been used by astrobiologists in their search for life on Mars, or Titan, or Europa.

About a year ago the newspaper The Scotsman reported about complaint lodged against a planned farmed salmon installation:

The Flodigarry Fairies have told Highland Council that they are concerned that the planned Organic Sea Harvest salmon farm at Flodigarry could be detrimental to their community, claiming that the steel cages that are used will “harm all species of Fairies in a life-threatening way”.

The objection, lodged with the council’s planning committee, explains that the Ashrai fairies which live in seas directly surrounding the Flodigarry Isles are in “fear for their lives” if the projects goes ahead.

It says: “Ashrai live for hundreds of years and will come up to the surface of the water once each century to bathe in the moonlight which they use to help them grow. It is proven that the steel of the fish farm cages draws many Ashrai to the surface, with only one result: They melt.”

While it may seem funny that locals wrote a letter on behalf of the Flodigarry Fairies and the Asherai to try to defeat the project the notion derives from a very old idea that not only was water the source of life but water itself was alive as embodied by the spirits that inhabited placid lakes, churning rivers, gentle running rills, winding streams and certainly the bruise colored ocean.

So it should be no surprise that toponymic surnames, that is names related to place, are very common around the world. To be associated with this life giving thing would be beyond practicality but also a matter of pride and perhaps even necessity.
Just a smattering of water based last names from the site Behind The Name include
ATWATER English From Middle English meaning “dweller at the water”
AYERS (3) English Indicated a person from the town of Ayr in Scotland. The town was named for the river that flows through it, itself derived from an Indo-European root meaning “water”
BECK (1) English, German, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian Cognate of BACH, from Middle English bekke (from Old Norse), Low German beke or Old Norse bekkr all meaning “stream”
BLACKBURN English From the name of a city in Lancashire, meaning “black stream” in Old English.
BOURNE English Derived from Old English burna “stream, spring”.
BRENNAN Irish From Irish Ó Braonáin meaning “descendant of Braonán”, a byname meaning “rain, moisture, drop” (with a diminutive suffix).
BURNHAM English From the name of various towns in England, typically derived from Old English burna “stream, spring” and ham “home, settlement”.
BURNS (1) English, Scottish Derived from Old English burna “stream, spring”.
CALDWELL English From various English place names derived from Old English ceald “cold” and well “spring, stream, well”.
DEL RÍO Spanish Means “of the river” in Spanish.
DOUGLAS Scottish Anglicized form of Gaelic Dubhghlas, which meant “dark river” from dubh “dark” and glais “water, river” (an archaic word related to glas “grey, green”).
FAIRBURN English From a place name meaning “fern stream”, from Old English fearn “fern” and burna “stream”.
IRVING Scottish, English Originally derived from a Scottish place name (in North Ayrshire) meaning “green water”.I
KAY (2) English Derived from Old French kay meaning “wharf, quay”, indicating one who lived near or worked on a wharf.
KERR Scottish From Scots kerr meaning “rough wet ground”, ultimately from Old Norse kjarr.
MARLOW English Originally a name for a person from Marlow in Buckinghamshire, England. The place name means “remnants of a lake” from Old English mere “lake” and lafe “remnants, remains”.
MONROE Scottish Designated a person who had originally lived near the mouth of the Roe River in Derry, Ireland.
MOORE (1) English Originally indicated a person who lived on a moor, from Middle English mor meaning “open land, bog”.
MURRAY (1) Scottish Derived from the region in Scotland called Moray meaning “seaboard settlement”.
NYSTRÖM Swedish Ornamental name derived from Swedish ny “new” and ström “stream”.
POOLE English From Old English pol meaning “pool”, referring to a person who lived by a small body of water.
RAFFERTY Irish Anglicized form of Irish Ó Rabhartaigh meaning “descendant of Rabhartach”. The given name Rabhartach means “flood tide”.
RIBEIRO Portuguese Means “little river, stream” in Portuguese, ultimately from Latin riparius meaning “riverbank”.
RIOS Portuguese Originally denoted a person who lived near a river, from Portuguese rios “river”, ultimately from Latin rivus.
RUTHERFORD Scottish From the name of places in southern Scotland and northern England, derived from Old English hryðer meaning “cattle, ox” and ford meaning “ford, river crossing”.
STAFFORD English From the name of the English city of Stafford, Staffordshire, derived from Old English stæð meaning “wharf, landing place” and ford meaning “ford, river crossing”.
VAN AMSTEL Dutch Means “from Amstel”, a Dutch river that means “water area”.VAN DER BEEK Dutch Means “from the creek” in Dutch.
VIRTANEN Finnish Derived from Finnish virta meaning “stream”. This is the second most common surname in Finland.
WALLER (3) English From Old English well meaning “well, spring, water hole”.

WALTON English From the name of any of several villages in England, derived from Old English wealh “foreigner, Celt”, weald “forest”, weall “wall”, or well “well, spring, water hole” combined with tun “enclosure”.

There are many, many, more and these are just a selection from Western Europe with people who I know who have those last names.

When it comes to surnames there are also the occupational ones as well. Smith, for the blacksmith in town, or Cooper for the local barrel maker, Thatcher who made thatch roofs, Taylor and the like.

We won’t go as deep here with the occupational surnames.

There are two surnames that I would like to speak to though. One occupational and the other toponymic.

We think nothing of getting into a shower and washing ourselves and maybe if you have a partner every once in a while you might hop in together and if you are being super functional (as opposed to amorous) you’ll wash each others back. It’s a devotional act as much as a practical one.

But there was a time where a real and respectable job was to be a “Bader” which means “a bather, or more specifically a washer of people at a bath.” There was this real function where bathing, this most simple of activities, was something you entrusted to somebody else. In Russian baths, even today, you’ll find someone who walks around with a platza, a bundle of oak leaves on thin branches to wash your back with. And in the same Russian bath there is a “mud man” who will rub your body with mud and clay and then rinse you off. And there were people who had this old relationship with water and people in such a way that they became known for it and called by it.

What a thing.

The other name is Ginsburg.

Ginsburg is the anglicized name for the German town of Günzburg which is the town by the river named Günz. It’s right there in southern Bavaria and is a tributary which feeds into the Danube River.The town, founded by Romans was formed in about 70 BC  and named Castellum Gontia and was named after Gontia, the Celtic tutelary goddess who was the river herself. The ”berg” in Ginsberg (or any city that has “berg” in it) means castle, or enclosed town so you can see how Castellum Gontia could morph to Günzberg. The name Ginsberg as a surname seems to be about 1200 years old or so. But it could be older. Now, the Danube is a great river, huge, culturally important, and if you are in the area it would be the body of water you’d refer to. But the residents of that little hamlet said “No. The Günz is where we are from. The Günz is what gives us life.” And before that “Gontia is who gives us life. We are hers. Call us by her deep running name.”

Until a few days ago there was a woman who had both of those names who walked among us. I make no claim that she had any special association with water or even of the waters that her name speaks of. But oh, what a wake she made in her arrival, her procession, and in her going.

And if there are souls, and I think there are, may it be that hers is paddling back on a good river to whichever good, sweet and resting shore it rolls towards.

Here at Primal Derma we are doing our best to remember ancestral trails and how they feed the way we might proceed in our days. That our old timers might have come from a real place with alive things all around them that they marked their days and their kin with.

These little jars of tallow are just that. Remembrances of an old trail.

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