The Telegraph
Wednesday , July 2 , 2014
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Indian personal names are a mystery to the rest of the planet. In my youth I spent almost three years in Mumbai in an Indian newspaper, and never got even near to mastering them. More exactly, I mean Hindu names. Muslim names are, well, those of Muslims, except in Bollywood. I soon learned that a D’Souza or a Fernandes would be a Goan Catholic. A Singh must be a Sikh (like many foreigners, I long thought “must” not “might”; and I never got to Kaur).

But which names came from where? Those Singhs were probably of Punjabi origin, OK? I picked up the commonest Gujarati surnames. An ending in -kar, I learned, implied a Maharashtrian, and -jee meant West Bengal. Most of north India, though, was a closed book. And the south! Where did all those Aiyars or Iyers belong? And surnames! Did wives take their husband’s surname, children their father’s? If not, where and why not, and what happened instead? Did Tamils even have surnames? Or many Keralites? How many north Indians can untangle southern naming? Don’t ask it of a wet-behind-the-ears young Englishman.

How simple, by contrast, are native British names. Or are they? If it begins Mac- or Mc- (British phone books list these together) or, rarely, M’- it’s a Scottish name — as no doubt you know. Mac- means “son of”, the common north-Scottish usage before surnames came in. But Scotland has more: Buchan, Cameron, Campbell, Dalrymple, Forsyth, and umpteen others.

The Welsh too at one time “surnamed” a child simply from its father’s given name: Evan ap Gruffydd, Evan son of Gruffydd. Under fierce English rule, from the 16th century this led to family names such as Prichard, Probert or Pugh (ap Hugh). Or ap gave way to the English -s, of: hence the commonest Welsh surnames today, Evans, Davies, Griffiths, Williams and, above all, Jones.

The equivalent endings in -son, such as Johnson or Richardson, are usually English. So are the many surnames indicating, as in India, some often ancient job: Butcher, Baker (though no Candlestickmaker), Butler, Carpenter, Carter, Driver, Farmer, Fisher, Glazier, Smith, Taylor, Thatcher, Weaver, Wright and many more. Strangely, I’ve never heard of Sailor or Builder; and we left Contractor and Engineer to be borrowed by India’s Parsis. Unlike these humble folk, there are families with French-looking names — Montmorency, Gascoigne or Beauchamp, for example — that can claim, some credibly, to have arrived with William the Conqueror in 1066.

Hyphenated surnames often began life in the 18th century, as some grand family thus brought in a son-in-law or potential heir. One family of dukes, now extinct, had a “five-barrelled” such name. You can still find a few four-barrelled ones, such as Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, and more with three barrels such as Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes. But most people so surnamed actually use just one — for example, the actor Ralph Fiennes. And the snob value of double-barrelled names has shrunk, as many West Indians now have them. My own never had any such value: a great-grandfather, tired of being one of a million Joneses, quietly let a hyphen slide between his second given name, Hugh, and his surname.

England also has its oddities. Who would choose to be Ramsbottom? Or Silley or Smellie? Deadman or De’Ath? Black, White, Brown, Green and Pink are common, but where are Red or Yellow? The Scots have some Blues, but the best-known holder of that name was a London rabbi, whose family name I believe began in German: Blume, a flower.

We have odd pronunciations too. Fiennes is spoken as Fynes; Beauchamp as Beecham; Cholmondeley as Chumley; and, oddest of all, Featherstonehaugh as Fanshaw. As I said, it’s all simple enough, provided you spend a lifetime getting accustomed to it.