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From FHM issue 143

What's in a name? Davis

Davis is currently the 45th most common name in England and Wales – a pale comparison to the exalted place it holds as 6th most common name in the United States. In the UK, strangely, this high position is held by the name’s closest relative – Davies.

            The fact of Davis’ scarcity in Britain (compared to its oft-confused sibling) may make it easier to comment on generalities of those who bear it. A study by University College London states that Davis is in the top 50 per cent of surnames in Britain as far as status is concerned, and that it is most often attached to urbanites – 85 per cent of people have a more rural name.

            In both 1881 and 1998, the British area with the highest incidence of Davises was Gloucester. This is borne out by the maps (below). In 1881 the name’s bearers were concentrated in the south-west of England and Wales around Gloucestershire. In 1998 the same concentration can be seen, though the name has spread more around the south of England generally. Interestingly, by this point it is less common in Wales.

            The name means ‘son of David’, and other surnames with the same origin are plentiful – from the obvious ‘Davidson’ to the less so, such as ‘Dawkins’. Forms are found across Europe, and even within Britain there are versions with links to different countries. Davies is associated with Wales and Davidson with Scotland, while Davis is the version most readily associated with England.

            The popularity of these patronyms can be attributed to a number of different sources. Some boys were named David after the early biblical king of Israel – in its Hebrew form David means ‘beloved’. Others were named after two Scottish kings, David I and II. Most obviously though – and explaining the strong links between this group of names and Wales – many took their names from that country’s patron saint. A sixth-century bishop, he founded a monastery, now a cathedral, in Pembrokeshire. Both it and the town around it are called St David’s.

            There are no towns or cities in Britain that derive their names from Davis, though there are five in the United States and one in Canada. There is also a Davis Sea in the Antarctic, named after Captain J K Davis, second-in-command of the 1911 expedition that discovered it. Happily, the name is more common in the annals of history than on any atlas.

            In terms of influence, there are perhaps two that stand out above all others. The first was a central figure in a pivotal period of American history; the second was one of the most important jazz musicians of all time. Their only link was New Orleans – the city where Mr Jefferson Davis died and where Miles’ beloved jazz was born.

            Jefferson Davis was the first and only President of the Confederate States of America. He was born in Kentucky in 1808, his grandfather having emigrated from Wales. His father, uncles and brothers all fought against the British, some in the American Revolution, others in the War of 1812, while Jefferson himself studied at West Point, the famous military academy.

            His career in the army and movement into politics led to his becoming Secretary of War. Davis was named President of the Confederate States in 1861, after announcing the secession of Mississippi. In 1865, the Union having won the war and the confederate cabinet disbanded, he was captured in Georgia, allegedly dressed in his wife’s coat and shawl. He was indicted for treason and was in prison for two years. He was barred from office for life and died, aged 81, in 1889.

            Miles Davis was born 30 years later, in 1929, in Illinois. Considered by many to be the most influential jazz musician of the later 20th century, his career as a trumpeter began when he quit New York’s Juilliard School in favour of working with fellow legend Charlie Parker. Davis went on to record milestone albums such as Kind of Blue, along the way becoming a major influence on all styles of jazz.

            He died in 1991. Aside from Miles, though, there are a number of other Davises who have made their mark on the jazz scene. Art, Eddie and Walter all played with the greats – perhaps any Davises reading should be encouraged to take up the trumpet.

            Back in England, the name has been key to the success of one of the nation’s most popular pastimes. Mention snooker and Davis together and the first name to be conjured is Steve, the world’s greatest player during the eighties. In fact, he was not the Davis to have the most influence on the sport.

            Joe Davis (no relation to Steve) helped to create the first World Snooker Championship in 1927. He won all subsequent world championships until 1946, when he retired from the competition. His younger brother Fred later won the event eight times. Add this to Steve’s tally of six, and one begins to think that those Davises about to reach for a trumpet should pick up a cue instead.

            In fact, Davises have been found in all walks of life. American Raymond Davis Jr became the oldest man to be awarded a Nobel Prize in 2002 at the age of 87. It was the prize for physics – his work focused on cosmic neutrinos. In the world of entertainment, Bette Davis excelled, winning the best actress Oscar twice, in 1935 for Dangerous and in 1938 for Jezebel, and was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

            Those with a taste for the macabre, though, may be even more interested to read about one Edwin Davis, the first ‘state electrician’ for New York. This was a euphemism for the title of executioner in those states that used the electric chair – an apparatus Edwin helped design. In 1890 he threw the switch on the first ever execution of this kind, that of hatchet murderer William Kemmler, although legend has it he was forced to throw it twice after the first jolt failed to finish the job.

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