The Grammarphobia Blog

That’s all, ffoulkes!

Q: Why do some British surnames begin with “ff”? Is this an Anglo-Saxonism? I find “ffoulkes,” “ffarington,” “ffolliott,” and others effing peculiar.

A: No, the use of “ff” at the beginning of surnames didn’t originate in Old English, the Anglo-Saxon language spoken from roughly 450 to 1150.

The earliest examples we’ve found in searches of the British National Archives are in Middle English, spoken from about 1150 to 1500.

For instance, a 1398 petition from Robert de ffaryngton, clerk of chancery, asks King Richard II to grant his brother, Nicholas, exemption from holding any office against his will. The King granted the petition.

The National Archives description of the petition refers to the petitioner as “Robert de Faryngton (Farrington),” but the document itself spells the name “ffaryngton.”

The oldest “ff” surname we’ve seen in the archives is in a writ for release from prison, dated 1275 to 1300.

The appellant is identified by the archives as “Simon Feukz (Folke),” but the name in the writ is written as “ffoukz,” apparently an early spelling of “ffoulkes.”

We haven’t found any recent scholarship on “ff” surnames, but 19th-century paleographers (scholars of ancient handwriting) traced the usage to legal scribes in the Middle Ages.

In “The Capital Letter F In Early Chirography,” a note in the April 1893 issue of the scholarly journal Notes and Queries, Sir Edward Maunde Thompson writes that “legal handwriting of the middle ages has no capital F.”

Thompson, a paleographer as well as the chief librarian and first director of the British Museum, says, “A double f (ff) was used to represent the capital letter.”

A note in the January 1893 issue of Notes and Queries, by the philologist, paleographer, and Anglican canon Isaac Taylor, says the “ff” in Middle English legal writing of the 14th century evolved over two centuries from the Latin capital “F.”

He writes that a vertical tick on the upper horizontal bar of the Latin “F” gradually lengthened in legal writing, making it appear that there was a double “f.”

Taylor, author of The AlphabetAn Account of the Origin and Development of Letters (1883), says, “It is this elongated tick which has been mistaken for a second /f/. People who spell their names with /ff/ are merely using obsolete law hand.”

However, it’s clear to us from a survey of Middle English documents that by the 14th century legal scribes were using two distinct letters “f” joined in a ligature. (The letter “f” was also linked to “i” or “l” in ligatures.)

A contributor to the Sept. 1, 1855, issue of Notes and Queries, identified as “M. D. W.,” says “this custom prevailed amongst engrossing clerks and writers in attorneys’ offices to within the last forty years, and in some instances even later.” (Many contributions to the journal are signed with abbreviations.)

Another contributor to the Sept. 1, 1855, issue, identified as “W.,” suggests that the “ff” usage is “a corrupted form” of the capital “F” in the Old English script introduced in the 12th century.

The “F” in some versions of Old English script, also known as Blackletter, can look somewhat like two letters “F” back to back, sharing the same vertical line. Despite the name, Old English script wasn’t used in Anglo-Saxon times.

We’d add that the practice may also have been influenced by the appearance of the double “f” at the beginning of some common nouns in Middle English.

Here are a few examples from the Oxford English Dictionary and the dates of the earliest citations: “ffrendes” (sometime before 1350), “ffolk” (before 1425), “fflessh” (1400s), “ffe” (fee, 1465), and “ffurst” (1500s).

We’re speculating here, but some Middle English scribes may have used “ff” in common nouns to differentiate between the “f” and “v” pronunciations of the letter “f.”

The letter “f” had only an “f” pronunciation when it was borrowed from Latin in early Old English, but the “v” pronunciation developed around the year 700, the linguist Raimo Anttila writes in Historical and Comparative Linguistics (1989).

The letter “f” sounded like “f” most of the time in Old English, according to the OED, but “f” was pronounced like “v” when it appeared between two vowels.

So the “f” sound of wīf, Old English for a woman or female head of household, changed to a “v” sound in the plural wīfes. Similarly, the “f” sound became “v” when lif (“life”) became lifes, and hlāf (“bread” or “loaf”) became hlāfas.

And in southern England, the initial “f” sounded like “v” in the pronunciation of fæt and fyxen, “vat” and “vixen” in Old English.

In Middle English, scribes gradually began replacing the “v”-sounding letter “f” with a “u” in the middle of words. They used the letter “v” at the beginning of words.

However, “f” was sometimes used for “v” sounds, and vice versa, especially in regional speech, through much of the Middle English period, and persisted into the 16th century, according to the OED.

The dictionary cites this passage in Thomas Langley’s 1546 translation of the works of the Italian scholar Polydore Vergil:

“Euen so oure Englishmen vse to speake in Essexe, for they say fineger for vineger, feale for veale, & contrary wyse a voxe for a foxe, voure for foure, etc.”

(In modern English, the OED notes, “F is always sounded /f/, except in the word of, where it is voiced to /v/ through absence of stress.”)

In all that effing confusion, it’s not surprising that legal scribes began, for whatever reason, to use “ff” in place of capital “F.”

By the way, we’ve seen no evidence of the common belief that the use of “ff” at the beginning of surnames comes from Welsh, where “f” sounds like “v” (carafan = caravan) and “ff” like “f” (ffilm = film).

In the 1965 second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Sir Ernest Gowers notes that the “ff” in surnames evolved from a scribal symbol to a symbol of distinction.

He cites Cranford, an 1853 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, in which Mr. ffoulkes is described as someone who “looked down upon capital letters and said they belonged to lately invented families.”

It was feared that he would die a bachelor, Mrs. Gaskell writes, until he met a Mrs. ffaringdon and married her, “and it was all owing to her two little ffs.”

We’ll end with a passage from “A Slice of Life,” a 1926 short story by P. G. Wodehouse:

“Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?” said Wilfred.

“ffinch-ffarrowmere,” corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation
And check out our books about the English language.