Saturday, June 13, 2020

Linguistic Issues Involved in Changing Whaple into Whipple

By Charles M. Whipple, Ph.D., Ed.D. 

One of the more widely recognized extant variants of the original eleventh-century Winple patronymic that appeared in the Domesday Book of 1086, experienced well into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is the confused use of the letter “s” at the close of many surnames.  Instances of such, relative to the Whipple surname were:  Whaples/Whaple;  Wheples/Wheple;  and Whiples/Whiple. Other instances evidencing this confusional state, as well as a mixing of the six above surnames, seen in Whiple/Whaple, could be noted. Moreover, these appear to have become exceedingly prevalent, as well as overly resistant to modulation during ensuing generations.


At least two warrants cited in linguistics literature for these practices exist. Attendant to the Norman conquest of 1066, the establishment of family surnames became imperative among the wealthier classes.  Within two hundred years or so, these morphed into hereditary names, such as Whiple and Whaple. Names with the addition of the letter “s” began among the peasant classes in the late thirteenth century, and originally were hardly ever names of substantial land owners. These people had not been endowed with hereditary names of their own, so they, in many instances, adopted the master’s surname on whose property they lived and/or worked.

“It is probable that a great many surnames ending in ‘s’ that still survive today originated between 1270 and 1350.” Essex had a relatively large number by 1350. They were less common in greater East Anglia though not at all rare. In some of the more isolated areas of southeastern England, where Whipple/ Whaple surnames were more prevalent, “s” surnames were still being formed up to about the year 1600. By this date, “s” surnames, particularly in southern England, had morphed to mean simply “Son of.” (Liberally adapted from “Surnames Formed from a Personal Name with the Addition of a Possessive ‘-s’,” in McKinley’s  A History of British Surnames. )

The coequal salient issue of how could Whaple change to Whipple was the result of the near universal illiteracy of the populous, particularly during the Tudor (1485-1603) and Stuart (1603-1714) reigns in England. Less than ten percent of Englishmen at this time, including in many instances a community’s clerk or priest, were at best semi-literate. Thus when called upon to record a name, the recorder, all too often, naively guessed at the conflicted spelling.  Priests in particular were predisposed to use Medieval Latin, which overemphasized the use of “s” and “es”.  This became magnified when many did not even know how to correctly pronounce their own name, or who spoke an unrecognizable dialect; thus the discomposed state that is with us still.

“The introduction of parish registers in 1538 helped to establish the idea of hereditary surnames. However it was common to find a person entered under one surname at baptism, married under another surname, and then buried under a third.” As noted in the William Fiske article, “The Whipple Family of Bishops Stortford, Hertford” (The Genealogist, vol. 20, no 2, fall 2006, pg. 203), the name Robert Whaple was witnessed in the first part of a will, and Robert Whaples later on. This would seem to indicate that the two were used interchangeably. It is noteworthy that research engines such as Ancestry.com recognize Whipple to be a variant of Whaple. 

“Why did Captain John Whipple have to change his name?” He didn’t—he used a more preferred variant of his earlier name.

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