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From FHM issue 144

What's in a name? Allen

Allen is one of the most flexible names that the English language affords. Not only can it be spelt half a dozen different ways – Alan, Allen, Allan, Alain, Alline, Allyn, Alen –  but it can also apply equally as a first, middle or last name. This is without even counting the numerous extensions and compound names, including Allenby, Allenson and FitzAllen.

            The particular spelling we are focussing on this month is the most popular – with 78,400 so-called people scattered across the country in 1998 – making it the 42nd most common British surname. More than 10,000 others have it as a first name.  As seen on the maps below, the majority of Allens can be found in the south-east of the country – it is especially popular around Leicester, where in 1980 about 1 in every 300 families bore the name. The Channel Islands and Cambridgeshire are also popular areas.

            Most of those who spell their name this way are descended from Norman soldiers who came to England with William I and settled here as farmers. Several of his army were called Alan or Alain – a popular Old Breton first name – and the name quickly spread throughout England, especially in Lincolnshire where many of them settled. This variant of the name was believed to originally come from a nomadic Scythian tribe from central Asia (c1000 BC) and come from the French pronunciation ‘Alamn’ of the Germanic term ‘Alemann – ‘all men’.

            Some scholars have argued that the name also means ‘harmony’, however this is probably linked to the Welsh-Breton Bishop of Quimper, who was the first to bear the name St Allen. The second St Allen lived in Cornwall, where he gave his name to a still-extant parish – possibly the reason why Cornwall has a high density of Allens.

            However, not all those with the name Allen come from the Breton region. At the same time the name was separately evolving in Scotland from the root ‘ail’ meaning ‘rock’ or ‘stone’. Experts believe that the name would have been given either to those who lived near a rock, or were like rock – either for their hard muscles or thick brains! Some claim that the Celtic version is actually derived from the root ‘aluinn’, meaning handsome. Perhaps these people are called Alan themselves!

            The earliest mention of the name in England can be found in the Domesday Book in 1086, which records one ‘Alanus’ (the Latin version of the name) living in Suffolk. Since that time, many other Allens have made an impact on the world.

            Probably the most famous Allen in British history was William Allen (1532–16th October 1594), an English Catholic priest and cardinal after the Reformation, who tried to return the country to Catholicism during the reign of Elizabeth I, to the point that he helped to organise the Spanish Armada. He was promised the role of Archbishop of Canterbury, should it have succeeded. He was made a cardinal in 1687 and set up a foundation to create and sustain many religious schools and seminaries for the education of catholic priests, which survives today in the form of two Catholic seminaries, Ushaw College, near Durham, and Allen Hall, Chelsea, London. 

            Allens are clearly attracted to positions of pomp and circumstance – or flamboyant ceremonial costumes – as the surname (in its various forms) also boasts six Lord Mayors of London: Roger FitzAlan (1212 –14), Peter FitzAlan (1246), Sir John Aleyn (1525 and 1535), William Allen (1571), Thomas Alleyn (1659) and William Allen (1867).

            More recently, Allens have made great contributions to the way we experience the world, through science and technology. US Zoologist Joel Asaph Allen (1838-1921), was the most famous scientific namesake who gave the world the ‘Allen rule’, which postulates that animals from cold-climates have smaller appendages to keep body heat loss down. On a more practical level it was the Allen Manufacturing company who came up the ‘hexagonal’ or ‘Allen key’ – the Ikea favourite – c1943, paving the way for the flat-pack furniture revolution. Even more important to the way we live today is the work of Paul Gardener Allen (born 1953), who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates.

            The two most famous celebrity Allens in modern Hollywood must be actor-director Mr Woody Allen and funny man Mr Tim Allen, of Home Improvement fame. However you must dash your hopes of being related to them through an Allen line as they are both impostors (real names Allen Stewart Konigsberg and Timothy Allen Dick). However you may well be related to one Irwin Allen (1916–1991) – a real American Allen, known as the ‘Master of Disaster’, who brought joy and fear to the hearts of many film-goers with his large-scale dramas, including The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974).

            Our home-grown Allen talent today includes father and daughter pair Keith and Lily. Actor, comedian and musician Keith Allen has long been part of the so-called Brit-pack – appearing in quirky British films and writing football songs. His daughter Lily has shot to fame in the last year with her pop album ‘Alright, still.’ 

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