at the Wording Desk
provocative word origins, funnier and more vivid than most dry, somber etymology sites
Charles Darwin: On The Origin of His Surname
and The Fatuity of Fighting Evolution
Charles Darwin was one of the best scientific enquirers who ever lived. To those who dismiss this scientist, I say this: Darwin’s scientific discovery of evolution through natural selection is the foundation of all modern biology. It is a unifying logical explanation for the diversity of life. There is no cogent other theory. Darwin and his theory will be alive through all of human history, long after you doubters and your sullen, born-again, scienceless spawn have dwindled away into the scoffers’ nonentity you so richly merit. You will have been yokel clowns blowing farting noises outside the entrance gate at the palace of knowledge.
You are pallid commas of history; Darwin is one of its exclamation marks.
Darwin: Meaning of the Surname
There are two possible sources of the great scientist’s last name. The Darwin family name was first recorded in a surviving document dated during the tenth century CE. In Old English it appears as Deorwine ‘dear-friend,’ quite obviously a byname arising from an affectionate nickname, perhaps to describe a loving man who was the founding ancestor of the family. Until rather late in the millennium the name appeared most frequently as Derwen, Derewin and Derwin.
Old English Wine Means ‘Friend’
The Anglo-Saxon word for friend wine was a common element in Old English given names, all of which preceded surnames by centuries. Godwin and Goodwin both mean ‘god-friend’ or ‘good-friend.’ The English surname Winger began as a first name Wingar, an Anglo-Saxon warrior name compounded of Old English wine ‘friend’ + Old English gar ‘spear.’ Winston is ‘friend’s settlement’ from Old English wine ‘friend’ + tun ‘farms, settlement.’ The modern spelling of tun is, of course, town.
Welsh Word for ‘Oak Tree’ = Derwen
Derwen is the Welsh singular of derw ‘oak trees.’ It is common in Welsh for tree names to be plural in meaning, with the singular (which is always feminine) formed by adding the suffix -en.
In other Brythonic languages of the Celtic family, the oak tree words are similar, e.g. —
Breton: dero (oaks), dervenn (an oak)
Cornish: derwo (oaks), derowen (an oak tree), derowennow (individual oak trees).
Other Origins of Darwin as a Surname
Darwen or Darwent or Derwent or Darwin are English surnames that may have arisen from an ancestor dwelling on the banks of the English river Derwent. Derwent is a very ancient Celtic river name that means ‘oak-river,’ named because its banks, at one time in pre-English history, were lined with oak trees. The same Celtic root for ‘oak tree,’ *–der, is found in the word druid (possible earlier form *der-uid) which means ‘oak-knower.’ There are four Derwent rivers in England. The Derwent River and its lake, Derwent Water, in Cumbria are mentioned in the writings of Keats and Coleridge and another poet, William Wordsworth, wrote of the river with deep affection:
“For this, didst Thou,
O Derwent! travelling over the green Plains
Near my ‘sweet Birthplace,’ didst thou, beauteous Stream
Make ceaseless music through the night and day
Which with its steady cadence, tempering
Our human waywardness, compos’d my thoughts
To more than infant softness, giving me,
Among the fretful dwellings of mankind,
A knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm
That Nature breathes among the hills and groves.”
- William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book I
There is also a Darwen River in Lancashire which flows past a town called Darwen.
How Best to Remember Darwin
If you would remember for a few moments today this Englishman of agile mind who asked some of history’s most pertinent questions, I urge you to read some of Darwin’s own words, not those of his enemies or of his supporters. Almost everything Darwin published is now free online at
It’s a fascinating site on which you can eavesdrop on one of the best scientific imaginations ever to inhabit a human brain. The theory of evolution by natural selection has now been proven at the molecular level of a cell! It’s that simple, that pervading, that complex.
Here is one sentence from the conclusion of On the Origin of Species:
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
I’ll wind up my modest celebration of Charles Darwin by quoting the Greek dramatist Sophocles who enunciated the first great human cry of freedom from superstition, of freedom from man-made gods, of freedom from quaking in fear and ignorance in the face of life and death. The passage is sometimes referred to as the “polla ta deina” from its first three words in Attic Greek: polla ta deina kouden anthrôpou deinoteron pelei. It’s found in the second choral song of the Greek tragedy Antigone written by Sophocles in the fifth century BCE. The full passage is well worth the perusal. But the opening line is a great bell that summons men and women to the centre stage of their own lives and orders the swindling gods and fucky-fingered godlets to stumble offstage where an overdue oblivion awaits them. Sophocles wrote: "Many are the wonders but nothing is more wonderful than a human being."
March 28, 2016
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