Lenten reflections 2020-2: What’s in a name?

As I thought about a topic this morning, my mind centred on my family name, Jones. In Jamaica, this is somewhere in the top 20 names that are common on the island, and we can understand how our colonial masters baptized the slaves and their offspring and gave them their names. Done and dusted. No amount of checking my DNA on 23andMe will get me back to whatever my family’s name might have been centuries ago. But, we carry ‘family’ names with immense pride in Jamaica, and it’s clearly a bit mythical. But, let me leave that alone for now.

When I went to England as boy, I never paid much notice to my surname as it was also quite common there, as it originated in Europe as one of the variants of the common forename, John. In the medieval tradition of using patronymic names, son of John became Johnson, Johns, Jones, Johansen, etc. In Wales, the patronymic forms were ‘ap’ or ‘ab’ followed by first name, eg ap Harry, ab Evan. As Welsh mutated, towards English forms, such names became Parry and Bevan as surnames. Got it?

As luck would have it, though, when I left university, my first job was in north Wales, working in local government as a transport planner for Clywd County Council, located in a town called Mold (or Yr Wyddgrug, in Welsh).

It is just west of the English border, with Chester as the most prominent English town; it’s one of the loveliest cities I know, and I was all ready to get a house there and commute.

Chester city centre

But, life had other plans. My wife and I found a ‘lovely’ holiday bungalow on the north coast of Wales in a village called Ffynnongroyw (pronounced ‘finnon-groyew’, meaning clean well), in a hamlet called Tanlan (meaning fire, in Welsh). Now, fortunately, I have no images of this ‘bungalow’. It was really a ‘lean-to’ attached to a house, and its real doozy feature was a Perspex roof over the kitchen, which was meant to make the place lighter and airy, but was no protection against cold weather, and the first winter was ****ing freezing. We had icicles dangling from the Perspex as condensation from cooking froze overnight. We had a coal fire that one needed to sit inside to get warm. My parents paid us a visit and slept by the fireside (2nd honeymoon, not) and spent the next day wrapped in a duvet by the fireplace.

I commuted from Tanlan to Mold each day. We had this short let for a few months while awaiting a house organized by the county council. We were thrilled when that came through and we got a brick-built house right in the town centre in a cup-de-sac crescent. The high street was two minutes away. Again, no actual picture, but the image below gives a good idea of the type of house and setting.

It had a nice sized garden, had upstairs, inside toilet and bath, and was cheap. We had nice Welsh neighbours with three young children. Our gardens were separated by a chain-link fence. I could walk to work and often came home for lunch. We soon got a dog, a ‘Welsh’ Labrador puppy, whom we named Bella. She loved to dig, and soon was leaving her signature craters in the back yard and appearing in the next door garden after she had dug under the fence. The digging was purposeful not malicious mostly as she loved to bury bones.

But, in Wales, Jones is amongst the five most common names, and the old joke with such names was that it was easier to name people ‘Jones the butcher’ etc than Evan Jones or Harry Jones because the first names were also very common. Well, I soon got my Jones name–Jones the black man. Fitting.

My job involved a lot of public consultation and to make that easier I had to learn Welsh. It’s a hard language: it has declension and mutations, and lots of consonants together and often long words, such as the famous Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch (or Llanfairpwlgwyn, for short; it’s the longest place name in Britain. It means, literally translated: [The] church of [St.] Mary (Llanfair) [of the] pool (pwll) of the white hazels (gwyn gyll) near [lit. “over against”] (go ger) the rapid whirlpool (y chwyrn drobwll) [and] the church of [St.] Tysilio (Llantysilio) of the red cave (-ogo[f] goch). The latter element has also been translated as “the cave of St Tysilio the Red”. It’s a lovely town on the isle on Anglesey off the north-east coast of Wales. Anyway, my Welsh lessons went quite well, and I was able to use it often when I played football and around town and when I met people formally. My conversation was limited and I could read reasonably well. Wales is officially bilingual, English-Welsh, and signs etc reflect that. Many north Walians are only Welsh-speaking, especially in rural areas heading west. English has gained prominence as migrants came over for better affordable housing, especially from the Merseyside area to the north. Hence, English in Mold had a distinct Scouser (Liverpudlian) twang. This geographical association is why Liverpool is my second team and why I am extremely excited at the prospect of their winning the Premier League this year. 🙂

My football team communicated mainly in Welsh and when we played away, a knowledge and facility with Welsh would help break down barriers for me as I learned how to curse (often relates to animals and their behaviour). So, Coc oen (cock own)–the cat’s willy; Fel rhech mewn pot jam (pronounced Vel rhech mewn pot jam (the ‘ch’ sound is the same as the Scottish loch)–like a fart in a jam jar. The arrival of Anglicization meant that some imported words crept into Welsh, like…you know 🙂 My worst fears were when we played in Bala, way out west, where sheep outnumber people by multiples, and the locals hate the English and anything that smells like them. We’d arrive changed, shake hands after and jump back in our cars, pronto, to head home, win or lose.

But, Jones the black man started to have a real presence in Mold outside his office work. He was a decent footballer (in a country renowned by for rugby, but football is bigger in north Wales). Mold had two teams and they played in (then) different leagues, but are consolidate in a single Welsh National League–the high standard was a breeding ground for many who could hold their own at top professional level, such as Chester-born Michael Owen, who came to the Mold area and played as a youth for Mold Alexandra; the rest is history.

I played in midfield and as a striker, and our teams were middling to top of the league. We had lots of good young players (like me 🙂 ), some had been professional apprentices, but most were now working professionals, plus a few who were miners or in industry. (The mine closures in the 1970s was a devastating time for us, as we needed to support unemployed team mates and their pride was not easily put aside.) But, whatever the match, the best was being able to go straight to our local pub, The Griffin Inn, for drinks afterwards, often needing to get the landlord to let us in early so we could start drinking with only a few lights on.

It’s only as I recalled these years that I realize a major connection in my footballing life. When I became a coach in the USA in the mid-1990s, I formed a youth girls team and named them ‘The Griffins’, after the mythological creature with a lion’s body (winged or wingless) and a bird’s head, usually that of an eagle. Well, that will excite my eldest daughter, who played on team and is now a coach, too.

But, as I was noting, back then, it was the beer, and still my favourite ale, Marston’s Pedigree, that was the pull (literally). We We is The ‘lock in’ (drinking outside legal hours is a strong tradition in Wales, as is the influx of people from the (‘dry’) western county, Gwyndd, on Sundays, when their pubs were closed) I often came home a bit tipsy 🙂 But, I’d eaten well, and would be no trouble.

But, football was my entree into town life. Whenever the team did well, we were celebrities, and Mondays were ‘pay days’ as I went to the butchers and was given a pound of sausages or some meat! What a life! Evans the butcher was my good friend.

So, I blended into Wales for a couple of years. My work gave lots of satisfaction as I was reorganizing rural bus services, mainly, and working on land use ‘structure’ plans. It also gave me laugh, such as a when a lady came to meet me and was looking for ‘Mr Jones’ and almost dropped dead when I said in Welsh it was me.

Two wonderful years, during which I enjoyed summer evening walks up the first hill of Snowdonia, Moel Famau (moy vam-ai; meaning bare mother).
It’s part of Offa Dyke in the Clwydian Hills. we nearly bought a house on a cliff top. But,
thanks to lots of things, I was due to head back to England in 1980, and that may be part of the next reflection.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

4 thoughts on “Lenten reflections 2020-2: What’s in a name?”

  1. Wonderful recollections! Brought back memories of my own time there at university in Cardiff. On the Welsh accent, sometime I think I hear echos of it in the Trini accent and wonder if there is a connection. What do you think?

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    1. Glad it resonated. (I’m now feeling a theme for Lent, so I am looking forward to my muse’s directions.) Both Irish and Welsh tones are clearly identifiable in sing-song cadence in Caribbean accents. South Walian accents are different to those in the north, though.

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  2. Really enjoyed this story. Thank you.

    I should add I thoroughly enjoy reading your observations on Jamaica and the UK. Reminds me of the verandah chats in Jamaica growing up. Have to disagree with you on Brexit though. Though I agree with most everything else

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