Young and Old, Old and New

I keep thinking about surnames, even though I’ve written about them quite a few times now. I think I find them so interesting because in the past, when they were granted to people, there was a degree of conscious thought behind them, and they were quite literal and descriptive, compared to first names. Recently, I’ve been pondering the surnames Young and Oldman.

There’s nothing particularly surprising about the origins of either surname. Like most, they began as nicknames, usually used to distinguish a younger or older sibling, or between two people in a village with the same surname.

Of course if people back then had known that surnames would catch on, and be passed on to children so that we end up with a situation where Neil Young lives to become old, they might have reconsidered using Young and Oldman as nicknames.

Isn’t it interesting by the way, how we pronounce Oldman? Imagine if we emphasised the second syllable, therefore pronouncing it like, well, old man. It’d be weird, wouldn’t it?

-Gary Oldman won an Oscar last night!

-Sorry? An old man won an Oscar last night!?

It’s only logical that as surnames became passed down from parents to children (and laterally from husbands to wives!) we stopped pronouncing them precisely like the words they come from, as the link between the surname and the first people it described was lost. It’d just sound weird otherwise, and lead to confusion. The same applies to surnames like Newman (new man in an area) too, of course.

Oh, and Youngman is a surname too, though not as common as Young. It’s also, oddly, like the surname Pullman, the name of a bus company in an non-English speaking country. In this case it’s a Chinese manufacturer of buses and trucks, and the name is an English literalisation of the surname of the company’s founder, Pang Qingnian.

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