An Irish type of English

It might surprise some people to notice how common the surname English is in Ireland.  But there is a logic to it. The surname, in a variety of forms, was actually quite common around different areas of the modern-day United Kingdom, being recorded as far back as the 12th century. With the variety of different tribes and ethnic groups in these islands, and Europe in general, the name English was given to someone to denote that they were of Anglo-Saxon origin, particularly in border regions where lots of mingling would be expected.

The more common surname Walsh has a similar history. This may be less surprising when one considers how it’s still often pronounced in the west of Ireland: Welsh. And of course there’s Scott too!

Another surname with a seemingly similar origin is Ffrench. Yes, there are two f‘s, that’s not a typo. It’s not so common, but is to be found around my hometown of Galway, being the name of one of the 14 historically powerful and wealthy families of the city, who were known as The Tribes of Galway. At first I assumed it simply meant, well, French. Given the extent to which Norman culture influenced Ireland after the invasion of 1169, it wouldn’t be surprising. That influence is still evident in many Irish names. Burke comes from the Irish De Búrca, which in turn comes from the Norman De Burgo. Any name with Fitz is of Norman origin, with the prefix meaning son of. So Fitzgerald, for example means son of Gerald. And yet, while Ffrench is French in origin, it doesn’t actually mean French. It comes from the old Norman Irish name Defraine, which has been anglicised in many forms such as Frayne, Freyne, Freeney, French, and Ffrench. Defraine originally comes from the French word Frêne, meaning place with ash trees.

I love how surnames developed simply as a means to give us information about someone, like what their job was or where they were from. In your country and language, do people have surnames which come from nearby nationalities?

8 thoughts on “An Irish type of English

  1. My paternal grandmother was a Walsh, so I guess I’m part Welsh someways back.

    I’m fascinated by the Icelandic system of naming, where you don’t have a surname but a patronymic. So a guy called Sigurd might have a son called Olaf Sigurdsson and a daughter called Helga Sigurdsdottir. I’m guessing this practice used to be more widespread in Nordic countries but now only remains in Iceland (and apparently Icelandic is closer to Old Norse than any of the other Scandinavian languages — conservatism of a small population, maybe?).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I find that really interesting, especially because patronymics were so common around the world. Like with Irish and Scottish names beginning with Mac/Mc or O’, I wonder why the system remained in Iceland when it dropped out of fashion everywhere else. Maybe it’s like you said: the conservatism of a small population.


  2. […] Of course, what interested me was her surname. You’d probably not be very surprised to learn that it means The Italian (in French). I’d never come across this name before, but I wasn’t surprised that it exists, and hearing it reminded me of how it’s quite common in Ireland for surnames to references nationalities (e.g. English, Welsh, French). […]


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