Surname Books

It is probably fair to say that the study of names (onomastics) is something of a dark art.  In his book A Guide to Irish Surnames (1964), Edward MacLysaght writes that it is:

"easy to be led astray by the similarity of a name to some word..."

There are a great many books on family names and there are also numerous websites professing to know the meaning of many surnames. These works vary in the degree of scholarship deployed, not only between books but between entries within a book. They often have different goals:


Sometimes a work will try to combine two or more of these elements.

The difficulty with these works is that is it not always clear upon what evidence they are basing their claims, particularly if all they do is cite a previous source.  Secondly, as anyone that has studied surnames with multiple spellings will tell you, it is far too easy to generalise from one or two examples. As has been seen from this study, take a Palen from Canada. Look up the books on Palen and you will find definitions that are French, German or Belgian in origin. Which one applies?  Well none of those in the cases described here, for we know that some people called Palen are so-called as it is a corruption of Pelan which itself was a corruption of Paling. These details are missed in surname books.

The lesson therefore, is that one cannot, in general, open one of these books and find the origins of your surname without supporting evidence that their research applies to your lineage. Their findings might apply to the majority or only to those from a particular region or perhaps they just got it wrong. I highly recommend George Redmonds' book listed below for details of the many caveats to researching surname origins. It is also essential to read the introductory material in the surname books to see if or how they outline their goals and acknowledge their limitations.

Bearing all this in mind, let's take a look to see what they have to say.

"Pelan" in Ireland

So what do the surname books have to say about the P-L-N class of surnames? 

Edward MacLysaght's book has:


Sir Robert Matheson groups Peelan and Pelan with Whelan. We know this is wrong - at least as a generality.

Robert Bell's book is silent on the surname Pelan.  I would rather book did not mention a surname than provide an unreliable entry.


"Paling" in England & Wales


The Oxford University Press has published A Dictionary of Surnames (1988) and a subsequent but related tome the Oxford Names Companion (2002, 2nd ed.). Neither deals with Pelan but Paling is cited together with Hayling, Palin, Pailin, Pelling, Ballin and Bolan as a Welsh patronymic. Specifically, they come from ap Heilyn meaning "son of Heilyn" in Welsh (P Celtic).


As the distribution of many of the Palin surname holders is proximate to Wales (Cheshire & Shropshire) this is plausible but I have some doubts that those people called Paling in Nottinghamshire ultimately have Welsh origins. Perhaps some Palings are Welsh in origin but not all? Of course, we have seen possibly one individual "infiltrate" Ulster and generate a number of surname variations over a few hundred years - albeit still concentrated in a small area - so it is not outside the realms of possibility. Genetic genealogy will help determine this.


But that's not the end of the story. Turning to Patronymica Britannica which was written by Mark A Lower and published in 1860, he writes that Pallin and Paling are probably derived from Palling which is a parish in Norfolk [Sea Palling exists to this day]. This theme is extended slightly by Reaney & Wilson's A dictionary of English Surnames which cites similar names found on ancient documents, connected with the locations Palling (Norfolk) or Poling (Sussex).


Contrast these with British Family Names (1894) by Henry Barber, who says that Palin is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Palling & Palig or the Norman French Palain which are personal names. He also adds that Pelling comes from the place Pelyn in Cornwall or Pellaines in Belgium.


Surnames of the United Kingdom (1902) by Henry Harrison dervies Palin from the Anglo-Saxon name-stem Pal in addition to the French diminuitive 'in' - i.e. Palin = little Pal. Whereas Paling means the hoe or spade people (from OE or Old Norse, pál/páil + the "ing" ending meaning 'peoples of' or 'belonging to' an individual or his family). This is given as the origin of the Norfolk place name Palling, i.e. the land of the "hoe/spade people". Paling is alternatively a variant of Palin. Payling is just another spelling of Paling as far as he is concerned.


The claims of a connection with Norfolk are interesting in so far as the book Palling - A History Shaped by the Sea - says that the place was one spelt Pawling or Pauling - so the pronunciation must be quite distinct from Paling. The "a" is pronounced /ɔː/ as in "law".


So where does does this leave us? I can't say it is particularly clear or especially enlightening about those of the Palin/Paling/Payling group found in Nottinghamshire who are removed from Norfolk, Sussex, Wales and Cornwall. These texts pull in different directions. Again genetics may resolve everything or there may yet be documents that can shed some light on the matter.


I must say that I am a little surprised the more obvious or perhaps naive etymologies - e.g. "pole" (fencing), "pail" (bucket/pan/pot) and "pale" (adjective) - have not been put forward. Is this reassuring? Perhaps one will emerge with a little more research or I am falling into the trap of being led astray as MacLysaght warned !



The following dictionaries do not mention Paling/Palin/Payling. This is not a criticism but is listed here for the record: