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From FHM issue 139

What's in a name? Morris

In the spotlight for the third article in our new series on surname etymology is the name Morris, whose so-named hail chiefly from Wales and the Welsh/English border. There are two major schools of thought on the origin of the name – it is thought to derive from either Southern Europe or from Wales.

            According to Victorian historian, Mark Antony Lower, the name signifies Moorish roots, and was imported from Spain and Morocco, along with the Morris dance. “It is a well-known fact,” he wrote, “that the so-called Morrice dance and the several branches of magic lore were introduced into these regions many centuries since by natives of Morocco. In some instances they embraced Christianity and to have become the founders of eminent families. Certain it is that several magnates bearing the names of Morrice, Fitz Morrice, and Mont-Morrice attended William the Conqueror in his descent upon England, and acquiring land settled in England.”

            The major contrasting theory to this – born out by the overwhelming distribution of Morrises in Wales and surrounds – was put forward by John Burke in his History of the Landed Gentry of England in 1833. He claimed it originated in the Welsh, Mawr-rwyce, “meaning in England ‘warlike’ or ‘powerful’ and was a title applied to such of the ancient chieftains as were prominent for valour.” This claim is supported by various other scholars, and predictably many Morrises themselves, who have agreed that the root words mean ‘great chief’ or ‘great prince’.

            Alternative theories include derivation from the Latin Mauricus, used to describe an individual who was ‘dark and swarthy’. It could also have been applied to a sailor or a traveller – from the Gaelic Muirgheas for ‘seafarer’, or Mauharims – Pheonician for ‘from the East’.

            Shared by almost 90,000 people, Morris is the 32nd most popular surname in the UK. There are also over 3,000 people with Morris as their given name – and 184 people since the start of civil registration who have had the misfortune to be christened Morris Morris. The areas you would be most likely to bump into a person called Morris are in east Wales and by the Welsh borders. The town with the most Morrisses per square mile is Bishop’s Town, just by the border of Wales, in Shropshire. Overwhelmingly, they are likely to be rural people, particularly farmers.

            The name has many less common variants: Morys, Morrys, Moris, Morice, Morrice, Mawrice and Maurice are still in usage in various areas of the country – mostly Wales. Interestingly, one similar name, Morrison, which one might have supposed to be a patronymic derivative of Morris, and therefore be found in the same areas, is found most commonly in Highland Scotland and the Hebrides. These people most commonly descend from the Clan Morrison, who in turn took their names from immigrants called O’Muircheasain who originally came from Donegal.

            Probably the most famous Morris to bear the name was William Morris (1834–1896), whose textile and wallpaper designs graced thousands of the best houses of mid-Victorian England. With his firm of craftsmen – Morris, Marshall, Falkner and Co – he was also responsible for leading contemporary furniture and stained glass window design that won a substantial following and the company were commissioned to decorate many churches, including Jesus College Chapel in Cambridge. In addition to his craftwork, Morris was also a poet, publisher and socialist, who believed that mass production was destroying craftsmanship and the life of the artisan.

            Ironically, during the 20th century the name Morris went on to be associated with two of the most mass produced items of the consumer age – Marlboro cigarettes, being made by Philip Morris cigarettes and Morris motor cars by the Morris Motor Company. This motor company was started by William Richard Morris in 1913 and the company’s most famous model, the Morris Minor, came out in 1948. W R Morris was made a Lord in 1934 for his services to the automobile industry.

            The most recent Morris to become a Peer was former education secretary Estelle Morris, now Baroness Morris of Yardley, who was made a Labour Life Peer in 2005.

            Two other famous Morrises of the 20th century became known for their work with animals. Johnny Morris (1917–1999) started his working life as a farmer until he was discovered by radio producers while telling stories in his local pub in 1946 and went on to become a household name, presenting BBC wildlife show Animal Magic for more than 20 years. Desmond Morris (born 1928) is a zoologist, working on animal program, Zoo Time, but also as an artist – painting in the surrealist style. He once memorably combined his two loves for animals and paintings as curator of an exhibition in the 1950s for a young chimpanzee called Congo!

            Sporting glory has come to the Morris name in the last 20 years with footballers Chris and Jody Morris. Chris was a successful defender for both club teams Celtic and Middlesbrough and for the Republic of Ireland under Jack Charlton – he now runs a pasty shop in his home town of Newquay called Morris Pasties! Jody Morris now plays for Millwall but was part of the FA Cup winning team at Chelsea in 2000.


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