My goal to learn something new every day
It’s not uncommon for students to occasionally ( 🙂 ) ask me what my given name, David, means. My response is usually just to say that I don’t know, which is true. But the thing is, I don’t really care what my name means. I was named after my grandfather (both grandfathers in fact, as my middle name is Joseph after my Dad’s dad), but when my parents were choosing my name, I don’t think that they gave much thought to the meaning, so the meaning behind my name doesn’t really say anything to me. In Korea, on the other hand, and I’m sure in countries elsewhere, choosing a name is serious business. When my son was born, my wife went to a ‘professional’ to make sure that the (Korean) name we had chosen had a good enough meaning (I wrote about that briefly here).
Surnames, however, I find much more interesting. They are passed from generation to generation, and can go some way to opening a door on your family history. They are also fascinating from a linguistic point of view. Robert McCrum et al. say this about surnames:
Chaucer’s time also saw the emergence of English surnames, family names. In Anglo‑Saxon peasant society it was enough for a man to be identified as Egbert or Heorogar. Later, a second stage would produce the ‘son of’ prefix or suffix ‑ Johnson, Thomson, Jobson. As English society became more sophisticated, Christian or first names were not enough. People began to be identified by where they lived, hence Brooks, Rivers, Hill, and Dale. Or more specifically: Washington, Lincoln, or Cleveland. The next most common form of identification was occupation: Driver, Butcher, Hunter, Glover, Sadler, Miller, Cooper, Weaver, Porter, Carpenter, Mason, Thatcher, Salter, Waxman, Barber, Bowman, Priest, Abbot, Piper, Harper, Constable.
-McCrum, MacNeil & Cran (2003)
I always knew that the -son suffix at the end of my name meant son of something/someone, but I never really knew what. So today, I decided to do a little digging on the internet. Of course, the internet being what it is, can be a little untrustworthy at times, so I’ve tried to find information from more than one source.
It appears that the surname Harbinson, with an ‘n’, is a variation of the surname Harbison. Harbison was the patronymic form of Harbi, which was itself a variation of the given name Herbert. Herbert incidentally is formed from the Germanic words ‘hari’ meaning army and ‘beraht’ meaning bright or famous. Herbert was introduced to Britain during the Norman conquest.
It looks like it was originally more common in Scotland, but today is stronger in Ireland, which makes sense as that is where my Grandfather comes from. And it has now travelled to Korea, where it is quite probable that my son is the first Korean Harbinson to be born.
And that’s about as much as I’ve been able to find out. While I’ve tried to double check my information, there is of course the possibility that things may be wrong! I wonder whether there are any books on the topic, or if there is a more reliable way than the internet alone to look into one’s family name meaning. If anyone knows of how to do this, I’d love to hear about it.
The next time a student asks me about the meaning of my name, instead of telling them that I just don’t know, I’ll be able to give them a little more information about the origin of my family name. How interested they will be? Time will tell.
Oh, and if you know anything about the origin of your name, first or family, I’d be interested to learn about it.
McCrum, R., MacNeil, R. & Cran, W. (2003). The Story of English. New York, NY: Penguin Books.