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Origins of the PHETHEAN surname
February 26, 2013
9:56 am
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February 25, 2013
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My first post .....
The Phethean surname has caused much discussion and one is often faced with the question “Is it Cornish” or even “ Is it Greek”. Traditional etymological studies have suggested that the surname (and the slightly more common form Phythian) is derived from the early French/Latin root “Vivian / Vivianus” - from vivus “living”. I have attempted to trace the origins and spatial distribution of the surname in England but I am now hit a brick wall around 1200. I would welcome any advice/suggestions as to how I can pursue this study or will it be that I just end up with a list of names, places, and dates (which is very much what I have achieved so far)?

Guppy (1890) records the Vivian surname only in Cornwall, and notes that it is the family name of the barons of Swansea. Bardsley (1901) records Phythian and Phethean as “ ‘son of Fithion’ i.e Vivian” and provides a short list of various other spellings and their sources and dates.

Reaney (1961 p143) states that the French root Vivian has provided an interesting lesson in phonetic development, which includes the names Videan, Vidgeon, Fiddian, Fidgen, Phethean and Phythian. Reaney (1961 p31-32) also discusses the dialectical variation in England of the name Vivian. In the south of England, “v” was regarded as the normal pronunciation of “f” and was replaced with it, so Vivian became Fifian or Fyvyan or even Phivien. Some of these forms then became corrected to Phythien and Fythien.

Reaney and Wilson (1976 p468) describe several variations on the Vivian surname, noting V being “replaced by “F” in the south of England together with scribal variations between F and Ph”. They attribute the origins of the Vivian/Vivien to the name of a 5th-century martyr which became “not uncommon” in England from the 12th century. They also provide a short history of various spellings with dates and sources, although some of the earliest records describe the name being used as a first-name not a surname i.e. Johannes filius Viuian, 1175.

Cottle (1978 p400) comments that the surname Vivian is a derivative of the Latin adjective “Living” and also the name of a 5th-century martyr. Cottle also describes the form Vyvyan as “an ostentatious form that before printing, had the excuse of greater legibility”. He does not mention any other derivatives of the name except Phythian.

Weekley (1916) advocates an Anglo-Saxon/Middle English root: “Frithu, peace, has given us many favourite font-names which have later become surnames, e.g. Domfrith (Dumphrey, Dumpress), Frithugar (Fricker), Frithmund (Fiddy-ment ) . To the last name, or to some other component of Frithu, such as the once favourite Frithu-swith or Friswid, patron saint of the University of Oxford, belong Fiddy, Fiddian, Phythian, Phethean...”

My own ancestry can be traced directly back to a Roger Phitheon of Brereton, Cheshire in 1539. There is documentary evidence of a "Phethean of Tunstall" in 1459 just 15 miles away in Staffordshire. Prior to that date I have traced the name and its multitudes of spellings via Patent Roll Calendars, The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379, and 1381 and various other Rolls and Cartularies. Some of the earliest occurrences of the name as a surname that I have found includes one William Phythien or Phivian of Barnwell, Cambridge in Carularium Monasterii de Rameseia dating 1250 and Henricus Vivien of Seabridge, Staffordshire in 1214 (The Stone Cartulary).

My own spelling of the name, Phethean, and the Phythian version, has been shown by my own genealogical and Y-DNA studies to have its roots in mid-Cheshire from 1500 until the Industrial Revolution, whence the Phythian familes moved to Liverpool and The Wirral and my Phethean families moved to Bolton, Lancashire. By the time of the 1881 Census both Phythian (298 persons) and Phethean (86 persons) surnames were exclusive to Lancashire. In the south of England there are enclaves of Fithyan and Fithian surnames in Hampshire and (now extinct) in West Sussex. "Fynyon" is mention in Hampshire in The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379, and 1381: Part 1. There is of course a very large population of VIVIAN names in the South West of England.

Analysis of my Y-DNA suggests an Anglo Saxon deep ancestry, which of course would include a Norman influence since the Normans have the same southern Scandinavian roots, so I am not able to use that as a a reliable indicator. The only glimmer of hope is that my Y-DNA Haplogroup profile - I1a4* (ISOGG 2013) appears to originate from further east in Europe rather than France or Saxony.


Stuart Phethean
Hampshire, UK

February 28, 2013
3:16 pm
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October 2, 2012
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Dear Stuart,

Hanks and Hodges (1988) go for the Norman French Vivian explanation too. However, there's a big surname project underway in Bristol, "Family Names of the United Kingdom" (FaNUK), which aims to put the study of surnames in the UK on a new footing. There will be a paper on it at the upcoming conference of the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland on 5-8 April, in Glasgow. Are you coming? Patrick Hanks will be there (and is giving the FaNUK paper together with Matthew Hammond), and so will other surname experts on the team, such as Peter McClure. It's well worth asking them if the project has uncovered any new information on your surname. If you can't make the conference, you might want to get in touch with FaNUK directly.

Best wishes,


March 3, 2013
12:10 pm
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February 25, 2013
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Thank you for your response, Carole.

I have already been in contact with the FaNUK project and submitted some data some time ago as I am a member of the Guild of One Name Studies. By coincidence I had an email from Duncan Probert on Friday. I was pleased to have been able to clarify one of their existing examples and to provide another of which they were unaware. They also agreed that the often-suggested Cornish origins for the surname seems unlikely; instead, it seems more likely to have arisen independently at different times and places, which is certainly supported by the data I have accrued so far. ( the earliest occurrence of the name as a patronymic that they have in the FaNUK database is for Johannes filius Viuian in Kent in 1175 (Pipe Rolls), whereas the earliest Cornish reference at present is for Odo Vyuyan in St Columb in 1451-64.)

I won't be able to make the conference in April I'm afraid but I will keep abreast of the proceedings.

Best wishes,


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