“Woodcock” is a surname in the United States and elsewhere. In its 2000 Census, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 6,931 people with this surname, making it the 4,676th most common surname in the U.S. (The Bureau’s downloadable spreadsheet contains data only on the 151,671 surnames that occurred at least 100 times.) Altogether, the Census captured over six million surnames, though many of those appear to have been due to scanning errors generated during data processing: about 80% of surnames were held by no more than four people. The most frequently occurring surname was Smith, with 2,376,206 occurrences. Surnames occurring more than 100,000 times accounted for a total of 26% of the population. The spreadsheet indicates that, while 70% of people surnamed Miller were white, about 95% of the Woodcocks in the survey were white.
Origin and Meaning of the Name
It has been suggested that Woodcock was one of many surnames that were originally intended or understood to convey insults. The nature of the hypothesized insult varies over time and across regions. In much of the U.S., the insult — or, more accurately, the joke — that comes to mind has to do with “cock” as another word for “penis.” In some (especially northerly) parts of the U.S. and in the U.K., however, the name seems more typically to be associated with both the Eurasian and the American woodcock bird.
Some suggest that the nature of the insult was, originally, that the woodcock is easily caught; hence, a Woodcock was understood to be gullible or “according to popular superstition, had no brains.” This appears, however, to be a later addition to the original meaning of the surname. In their Dictionary of English Surnames, Reaney and Wilson (1991, p. 499) say that the Woodcock surname is “A nickname from the bird, [Old English] ”wuducocc” ‘woodcock’, later used to mean ‘a fool simpleton, dupe'” (emphasis added). Originally, that is, people were apparently just named after the bird; a pejorative connotation seems to have been inferred in later centuries.
The Surname in Modern Woodcock Hunting
The ease of catching a woodcock appears to depend upon circumstances. Contemporary hunters apparently find them challenging to hunt because of the dense vegetation they prefer, their habit of staying still when hunters are nearby, and their erratic flight pattern when they do take to the air.
It appears that hunters in modern (e.g., 17th through 19th) centuries may have considered the woodcock foolish because, upon being flushed, it would sometimes fly only short distances and then drop to the ground, possibly close to the hunter or his dog. King (1866, pp. 174-175) suggests that this behavior may be due to fatigue from a recent long flight, for which this relatively plump bird is not well suited.
Some woodcock hunting in Britain in recent centuries was an indulgence for relatively well-to-do hunters who could afford to take a number of hunting dogs to France and, due to quarantine, leave them there. That is, the derogatory interpretation of the surname may have been an invention by wealthy modern-era hunters whose circumstances gave them an impression of the bird that would not have been within the experience of largely impoverished country people who were hunting, without guns or dogs, when the name originated, centuries earlier. Judging by the virtual nonexistence of other potentially derogatory bird names (e.g., Chicken, Turkey) within the Census spreadsheet, one must weigh the unlikelihood that many families would have retained this surname for a thousand years if they had consistently understood it to be one of ridicule.
The Surname in the Context of Medieval Woodcock Hunting
Medieval sources (e.g., the bird paintings in the Sherborne Missal or the Bird Psalter or the Ormeshy Psalter) do not suggest that the bird was considered stupid. To the contrary, medieval hunting of woodcock with bow and arrow seems to have been believed to require luck or skill.
Nets were also used to catch woodcock. Apparently referring to this practice, Matthew Green (1796, p. 19) wrote, “Woodcocks to shun your snares have skill.” As noted by Samuel Butler (1780, p. 230), it is also possible to catch them at night — though this has obviously become easier with the invention of battery-powered flashlights.
There are some indications that medieval woodcock hunters may have been helped by the birds’ foraging, which was said to leave trails of holes in the ground. Apparently their white excrement is easily washed away by the rain or, presumably, by heavy dew in their favored lowland foraging grounds, leaving another telltale mark of their recent presence in an area.
Non-Hunters’ Impressions of Woodcock
People have noticed various things about the bird, of course, such as its flight and the male woodcock’s courtship ritual. According to Church (1883, p. 279), “British farmers are said to watch its movements [i.e., its migration] with much interest,” in the belief that its “long continuance in our temperate clime / Foretell a liberal harvest.” This agricultural rule of thumb was presumably not invented in the 1800s. More likely it reflected an agrarian understanding of the woodcock that was handed down over the centuries. Generally, 18th- and 19th- century poets quoted by Robinson (1883, pp. 479-481) speak of a migratory, nocturnal bird that prefers relatively cool climates — again with no obvious disparagement. Moore (1891), conveying folklore from the Isle of Man (UK), cites an adage: “One swallow will not make summer, nor one woodcock winter.”
These sorts of observations about the woodcock raise any number of associations that might have come to mind when medieval (or, conceivably, ancient) people first began characterizing themselves as Woodcocks. They may have had in mind the bird’s preference for lowlands, or its connection to the soil; they may have liked some of the sounds it makes, or may have felt that its somewhat atypical migration times of year were the very best times of the year. Their reasons for adopting the name may well have varied from one family to another. The notion that they would have adopted and/or retained a deliberate association with a derogatory name seems unlikely.
Related Surnames in Medieval Britain
The foregoing observations inspire curiosity about what other names might have led to, or resulted from, the Woodcock surname. This is the sort of investigation that can go on endlessly, in many directions. I will not be pursuing that broad investigation here. Briefly, it appears that Linkpendium.com and Surnameweb.org (among many others, no doubt) provides a large collection of links that one could pursue on this matter. Also, sofeminine.co.uk provides a map suggesting that Woodcocks were especially concentrated in the southeast of England, with some outposts elsewhere in the country that may ultimately derive from other family names (e.g., Woodcote).
There is, however, one interesting angle on the mixed-surname situation that may deserve a bit of attention here. This angle begins from the recognition that spelling in the pre-modern world was not always quite the precise science it is today. According to Stratmann and Bradley (1891, p. 136), the Old and Middle English (i.e., medieval) words “cot,” “cote,” and “cott” meant “cottage” or “hut.” In a phenomenon that occurs even today, apparently it was quite common for surnames to be recorded, adopted, and remembered in various ways. Hence, it has been observed that Woodcock, Woodcott, and Wudecota overlapped frequently. This state of affairs suggests that people who could have been called Woodcott evidently did not find it necessary to shy away from Woodcock. It also raises the apparent fact that, for at least some branches of the family tree, the original name was not Woodcock at all. The Internet Surname Database offers this intriguing remark:
On November 4th 1565, William Woodcock married Johan Averidge at the Church of St. Mary at Hill, London, and the christening of Richard, son of Ambrose Woodcock, took place at St. Lawrence Jewry’s, London, on March 14th 1585. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of William Wdecoch, which was dated 1175 . . . . Surnames became necessary when governments introduced personal taxation. In England this was known as Poll Tax.
In the matter of mixed surnames, that quote makes several interesting statements. First is the indication that Richard Woodcock was christened at St. Lawrence Jewry’s. I had to look it up in order to learn that it is, in fact, a church, and that its name comes only from its location near the old Jewish ghetto in London. In that event, I found it interesting that a Woodcock was married at what was apparently a major London church, apparently comparable in terms of prestige to the present-day St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
Second, in a similar vein, is the reference to William Wdecoch. Stratmann and Bradley (1891, p. 127) state that, in Old English, “coch” meant “cook.” According to the Internet Survey Database, it had that same meaning in German, where it predated the Middle Ages and has been found in such variants as Coci, Coche, Cocher, Koch, Koche, Kochs, Kocher, Kochel, Kochl, and Kochlin. A cook may seem to be just one more among the mostly (but not entirely) working-class vocations in which Woodcocks found themselves in the 1880s; but the Internet Survey Database article seems to say that, at least in German-speaking lands, someone who qualified for this name may have been in a position of status overseeing the kitchen in a relatively important location, such as a royal house or monastery, or serving as the village cook managing the preparation of food at the central fire. I was curious as to whether a family originally named Wdecoch (or, in today’s terms, Woodkoch) would also have had Jewish roots, given that Koch is presently a common (though not exclusively) Jewish surname. For my purposes, this is perhaps a question most easily (although not yet) explored through DNA testing.
Reflections on the Origins of English Surnames
One final question raised by the foregoing quote has to do with the origins of English surnames. The quote suggests that people who did not previously have surnames needed to adopt them in response to the Poll Tax. There were poll taxes in various centuries during the Middle Ages. But Rogers (1995, p. 154) says that Poll Tax records from the 14th century show that, at least in some locations,15-25% of respondants (especially servants) recorded no surnames, bringing to mind the parallel of southern black slaves who adopted surnames like Washington and Jefferson. But Rogers thinks that, at least in some locations, servants did have surnames, but those names were left off by the clerks recording the poll data, perhaps to distinguish them from nonservants. Rogers (p. 144) says that the surnames that did exist could easily be non-inherited (arising from e.g., one’s position, such as “Peter Bishop”). As an example, Rogers (p. 153) says, “The father of a Roger Cartwright in 1379 might have been called Adam Johnson [i.e., John’s son], and his father John the Cooper.” Surnames could also change as one went through life (from e.g., “Peter Ladd” to “Peter Mann”) and might also bear no relationship to one’s actual role (as in the observation that the number of people surnamed “King” far outstripped the number of people who would have qualified officially for such a title). Rogers suggests that wealthy people in the 14th century tended to have location-based surnames (e.g., Westmoreland) while lower-income surnames tended to arise from nickname, personal name (e.g., “Peter Rogers”), or occupation. Rogers finds evidence that people with occupation-based surnames tended to be more fixed in their locations; for instance, the village cook had a good job with benefits. Rogers notes, moreover, that the patterns of surname spread were different in different locations, suggesting that the Woodcocks of southeast England may have varied in multiple regards from the Woodcocks elsewhere.
I did not attempt to read all of Rogers’s fascinating book, much less summarize it and other relevant sources, for this post. The caveats just listed nonetheless provide a bewildering number of possible variations. One is that a present-day Woodcock who can be construed as coming from a Wudecok line may be genetically more closely related to a Smith or, conceivably, a Cohen than to another Woodcock whose family was originally called Woodcot — and neither of them may have come to be called “Woodcock” because of anything having to do with a bird. The absence of an occupational connection in “Woodcock” also raises interesting questions about the possibility that they enjoyed the luxury of styling themselves as “birds of the wood” rather than as e.g., hardworking carpenters. Then again, the absence of an occupational connection may imply substantial uninvolvement with (or, conceivably, exclusion from) the productive work or social life of the towns. It is even imaginable that Woodcock came to acquire a pejorative meaning because, at least somewhere and at some time, it was easy to stigmatize people of this surname as outsiders or misfits — though, again, it seems that such labeling had to await an era, in the late Middle Ages, when surnames became relatively fixed.
As I transitioned this post from a Wikipedia page to my own blog, I also transitioned from a relatively summary review to a more thoughtful and open-ended inquiry. The early sections of this post focus upon common but apparently untenable notions about the Woodcock surname. The ending sections focus more upon the emergence of a somewhat chaotic surname scene in medieval England.
There do appear to be several ways in which this sort of investigation could move forward, though I certainly do not have the time for it at present. One would be simply to read and think more about surnames, Woodcock and otherwise, back into the Dark Ages. Another would be to await the development of DNA databases that may eventually make it possible to map out the locations and other characteristics of one’s residents in present and, to some extent, historical Britain and elsewhere. If it is not farfetched to imagine people digging up old graveyards, someday, in the name of learning about one’s ancestors, then at some point a combination of DNA testing and genealogical database development will probably yield surprises going well beyond the speculations provided here.
In this light, it becomes faintly ridiculous to suppose that the Woodcock surname arose for any single reason, including particularly an apparently anachronous construal of the game bird as stupid. While that sort of characterization will inevitably apply to some people, in this family or in any other, the surname scene is far too jumbled and vague — and the nature of the bird itself is much too respectable — to let any such view be taken seriously as a valid global depiction. People seem to have come to be named Woodcock for a variety of reasons, few of which have anything to do with the simplistic labeling that appears in some sources. I do not expect to have time to explore this subject area in depth going forward, but it will be interesting to see what I encounter in passing on these matters.