Their surname was what?!

Have you ever come across a surname in the course of your family history research which made you look twice? The kind of surname that belongs in a comedy sketch? Many people throughout history have changed their names. Perhaps because their name isn’t interesting enough, perhaps because their work wouldn’t be considered if they used their real name. Reg Dwight, the Brontë sisters and even J.K. Rowling are all examples. But, sometimes names are changed accidentally. Maybe a person’s handwriting was not very clear, or maybe modern sensibilities and experiences correct the name instead. Well, I have found seven generations of one particular surname in my family that has fallen victim to just such an unwitting change.

An ‘interesting’ name

As I have written before, many of my ancestors come from Somerset in England (see my other blog post on the subject). I have ancestors in the county on both my maternal and paternal side. A little while ago, I inherited some research from a relative for some Somerset ancestors on my maternal side. It has taken a little while to sort through it all, but recently I have been looking further at the Toogood family. They came from the Burnham, Huntspill and Wedmore area of Somerset (not far from Bridgwater). There were some notable members of the family from the Victorian period, namely local brickwork owners and managers. Their story would need a whole other post!

But this story begins in Wedmore with the marriage of James Toogood and Elizabeth Cock on 05 April 1785. Can you see where I’m going with this? The name Elizabeth Cock is not exactly one that is commonly talked about. It sounds more like something out of a Two Ronnies sketch! But Elizabeth Cock was her name and she did marry James Toogood. They went on to have at least nine children, including my 4 x great-grandfather, George Toogood (abt. 1787, Huntspill-1846, Wedmore).

Elizabeth was the daughter of James Cock (b. abt. 1716, Wedmore) and Joan Fisher (abt. 1735, Wedmore-abt. 1775, Wedmore). She had 6 siblings: Mary, Jane, James, Mary, Josias and Elizabeth. Out of those siblings, only James survived into adulthood. He would make another interesting project one day, to see whether his line has survived into modern times.

Their surname was what_Shersca Genealogy_Cock family tree
Pedigree tree for Elizabeth Cock (1764-1824).

Elizabeth’s ancestors

Working backwards then from James Cock senior (all events were from Wedmore), his parents were John Cock (abt. 1657-abt. 1730) and Mary Pethoram (abt. 1679-abt. 1745), John’s parents were John Cock (abt. 1631-abt. 1710) and Mary Bushe, the next generation was John Cock (b. abt. 1601) and possibly Anna Poole, this John’s parents were Nicholas Cock (b. abt. 1562) and Alice (no surname was recorded for her upon her marriage to Nicholas in 1598) and finally, Nicholas’ father was John Cock. He may have been born in around 1530 and possibly died in 1574, in Wedmore.

Now, you may think that the name ‘Cock’ would be fairly straightforward to find in the records I used. You would be mistaken. Most of the entries regarding the Cock family outlined above, were not found as ‘Cock.’ They were in fact, found under the name ‘Cook’ instead. Some I did find under ‘Cocke,’ but most were found under ‘Cook.’ The question is why? Was this surname a victim of modern sensibilities or was it simply a case of difficult handwriting?

What does it mean?

Let’s begin with the meaning of the surname ‘Cock.’ According to the Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames,1 the surname ‘Cock’ did not mean what some modern people would think it means. Quoting from the dictionary, ‘Cock’ came from ‘the pertness or swagger of the bearer.’ Essentially, someone who we would now call ‘cocky.’ Some of the early examples of the name given also come from Somerset (although the spellings do differ slightly- ‘Cok’). This would be an example of the surname developing from a person’s personal character, as opposed to other surnames which can be locational, occupational, patronymic, matronymic or a person’s physical characteristics.2 The other meaning of ‘Cock’ in this dictionary, comes from a local name- here called a ‘sign-name’ with the example of ‘at the Cock.’ So, neither possibility for the origin of the name has anything to do with the slang that we are familiar with.

How was it written?

What about the handwriting used to write the name? Could this have been the reason for the transcription error? The further back in time you travel, the more you notice the changes to people’s handwriting. Although each individual has their own unique hand, various time periods develop styles that are wide-spread and can be recognised. There would not be space to go into the complexities of different hands here, but generally after 1500 Secretary hand was common, until that gave way to Italic hand around the 18th century onwards. This is close to the way we form letters today.3

Their surname was what_Shersca Genealogy_Handwriting example
This handwriting example from one of my Toogood ancestors illustrates the problem- not the easiest to read!

The problem for the name ‘Cock,’ is that the letter ‘c’ is often mistaken for an ‘o.’ That is when you get ‘Cook’ instead. The other name I have come across is ‘Cork’ instead of ‘Cock,’ especially in some of the earlier records. This is because the ‘c’ in these cases looks a lot like the letter ‘r.’ If a person transcribing a record is not so familiar with these idiosyncrasies, then you get transcription errors. Spotting the differences in handwriting does take practice though and it is always helpful to have some good reference samples on hand.

And finally…

Obviously, I still have a lot of work left to do on the Cock family. Many of the couples were married by licence, which may give an indication of their wealth. Or, it may be that it was a particularly common occurrence in the area. In any case, they seem like an interesting family to research further. I have my own ideas, but I’ll let you make up your own mind as to the reason why the surname was changed. Was it simply mis-transcribed, or was it deemed too impolite, even if this was unwitting?

The point here though, is that when we come across a name in a record, we should always keep an open mind! It may not be quite what you think.


  1. Bardsley, Charles Wareing. (1901) ‘Cock.’ In: A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames with Special American Instances. New York: Oxford University Press Warehouse. p. 189. : accessed 23 April 2020.
  2. Ibid., pp. 1-36.
  3. Marshall, Hilary. (2010) Palaeography for Family and Local Historians. [unknown place]: Phillimore & Co. Ltd. p. 23.

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