I’ll tell you what’s in my last name.
It means “quivering bog.”
That’s absurd, I thought when I first came across this definition years ago in a name dictionary in the then-new $4 million downtown Seattle Public Library, which, by the way, is an equally absurd hodge podge of modernist “design” elements that looks like something out of a bad dream. That place should have been torn down the day it opened. Now these are some cool libraries.
But I digress. That particular definition has always gnawed at me, and the Surname Database offers the same lame definition, but it also offers a much more interesting and appealing meaning: “alder stream.”
This first meaning was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, a wide scale census, and the Surname Database says that Warne was the name of the stream of the place. I found the specific location of the Warne place on a website that made a database out of the Domesday book, which is in Devonshire, in southwest England. Wearne, a variant, also appears to originate in the same part of the country. There are a few roads and even a bed and breakfast that share variants of the name Warne, which include Wearne, Warn, and Wearn. The origin of the name seems to be a toss-up between Somerset and Devonshire, both in the same region of England.
The meaning that bothered me so much came from the Pipe Rolls of 1194, which is a tax document. Apparently, my last name was composed of pre-7th century elements meaning to quiver or to shake and bog/swamp/fen/marsh. Wage plus fen was how the transcriber copied down my precious last name, but after more research, I realized that there’s a potentially complete disconnect between this secretary’s transcription and the real “meaning.”
In other words, the scribe could have been having a bad hair day, and he could have simply copied down phonetically what he heard. I doubt that the tax collectors were very interested in preserving detailed semantics for antiquity from citizens who may not have put any stock or thought into the meaning of the name of the place where they lived. Additionally, there could be semantic nuances that don’t come across very well. “Shaking bog” means nothing to me, but “rustling marsh” or something along those lines tends to make more sense, because we tend to use words like shake and quiver to refer to objects, not landscape elements.
My lack of knowledge of the language and historical context is clearly a limitation, but these are some common sense logical connections the researcher can make.
Last names were new, at that time. Most people simply acquired the last name of the place where they lived, to comply with a new tax system that had recently come about. So it appears there were locations called Wearne in Somerset and Warne in Marytavy, Devonshire, so people living at those locations simply adopted the location name as their last name. Blah blah of Warne.
I couldn’t find any more revealing information in the UK National Archives.
Of course, I am rooting for “alder stream,” but I was not able to find an image of the page out of the Domesday book to verify the Surname Database claims about that particular meaning. More digging may turn it up.
An extensive genealogy of the Warne name exists on archive.org, but it doesn’t cover the meaning of the name, which is my chief interest.
After a bit more browsing (the internet really makes research a piece of cake), it seems clear that Warne and its many variants, whatever their origin, are related either to the elder or alder tree. The semantic and linguistic element, regardless of whether you are talking about the Gaulish vern, the Celtic element verno/uerno, the Welsh gwern, or any other variation, the common element appears to be elder or alder. The Online Etymology Dictionary, which I use so much it is pasted into my toolbar, points to completely different roots for the word alder, as well as verno, but also suggests there may be some confusion or relationship to the word elder.
Alder seems to be the general consensus, though I’d be interested to dig around more into the actual linguistic confusion around the issue. I know firsthand exactly how information spreads on the internet.
The etymological and semantic history, regardless of which language you’re researching, points to either an elder or alder tree, not a quivering bog, like some silly tax collector suggests.
You’re welcome, Warnes. ;)