A Surname Saga: You Can Help

Molly Katchpole helped us: now we can help her.

Posted Nov 29, 2011

In a previous Psychology Today blog about given names,1 I suggested ways to enrich your sense of identity using your first name. You can do the same thing with your last name. As an example, let's consider the name of Molly Katchpole. Molly Katchpole started a successful online petition against Bank of America's debit card fees and thus saved a lot of Americans a lot of money. In doing so, one may assume she unavoidably annoyed some people, especially bankers. Her accomplishment is admirable.

In telling her story, Molly Katchpole mentioned that she thinks her last name has British roots and has something to do with catching people who evade taxes. She is correct. According to Wikipedia, Catchpole is a rare surname related to law enforcement, dating back to the Middle Ages when criminals were paraded around with a forked eight-foot catchpole (a long pole with a forked V at the end). Wiki notes that the name Catchpole was used for tax collectors, perhaps because they had to chase down delinquent taxpayers. The Oxford Unabridged Dictionary traces the etymology of Catchpole from Anglo-Saxon to Norman French (cachepol) to Latin (cacepollus) wth the French and Latin referring to catching chickens—part of the "small goods" that tax collectors would seize for payment of delinquent taxes. Catchpole has a very long history. The spelling was evidently changed from Catchpole to Katchpole in the U.S. As Molly Katchpole suggests, she has a genetic link to the subject of taxation.

A little more research reveals that Katchpole is now in the online Urban Webster's Dictionary where it is spelled with a capital "K" (which suggests the spelling is based on a proper name). It is defined as "to complain for the sake of complaining, to whine"—but no sources are given for this usage. Hmmmm, I wonder who defined "Katchpole" for the Urban Dictionary? A further search, reveals that you can buy a white mug inscribed "Katchpole Verb. To complain for the sake of complaining, to whine. 'Stop Katchpoling about the weather. You can't change it.'"—for a mere $21 to $25. I wonder who would enjoy drinking their coffee out of one of these pricey mugs with this message? Personally, I don't think we have to redefine Katchpole. It's a surname with a fascinating history that helped Molly take the stand she did against unfair taxation. If the name has to be redefined, I think, personally, that it would be great to redefine Katchpole for the Urban Dictionary with a definition that's closer to it's true nature — a feisty individual who stands up for his/her rights. Hopefully, we're not going to let the Urban Dictionary redefine Katchpole in such a negative light? Molly Katchpole did most of us a great service. Maybe now, we can help her a bit and save her family name from aspertion. Whatever your opinion is on the matter, you can vote by going to the Urban Dictionary: Katchpole and choosing either thumbs up or thumbs down for the definition given. Please spread the word. And if you can figure out how to edit the definition or vote to remove the current definition, that would be most excellent, in my humble opinion. Let the tweeting begin! Thanks, Elisabeth Waugaman

P.S. Here's one last bit of historical information about surnames for those interested. Surnames did not become widely used until quite late in European history—around 1500. There are many sources for surnames. (1) Lineage: (a) patronymic (named for the father)—e.g., Johnson, O'Brien; (b) matriarchal (named for the mother)—e.g., Molson [son of Molly], (c) clan names—e.g., MacDonald; (2) Place Names that can be (a) geographic—e.g., Eastwood, Churchill; (b) city names—e.g., London (e) estate names—e.g., Windsor; (3) Descriptive (based on physical traits or nicknames)—e.g., Short, Wise, Goodman; (4) Occupational—Carpenter, Taylor, Katchpole.3

1. Psychology Today: What's in a Name?
Names and Identity: The Native American Naming Tradition
2. Margaret Brown, Wikipedia,
3. Family Name, Wikipedia
Charles W. Bardsley, Surnames, Their Sources and Origins, (London: Chatto and Windus, 1875)