The Meaning of the Name


There are six letters in my name.
The first three are an animal.
The last three are a spirit.
The first letter in the last half
is like the last letter in the first half
and both middle letters are identical.
What am I?

- Riddle by the late Stan Piggin of Crich

1. Which came first? With or without an S?

The names Piggin, without a terminal s, and Piggins, with an -s, can be found side by side throughout the areas of England in which the name was at all common before the Industrial Revolution. Onomasticians (linguists specialised in the history and meaning of names) have paid a good deal of attention to such pairs of names, but still debate when and why they split up in this way. In the case of French names like Lyons, -s comes from Latin and was later dropped, but in most English surnames, the -s seems to be something extraneous that is added to the preceding word. The experts have speculated on both of the two obvious explanations: that this is either a possessive -s or a plural -s.[1]

Reaney in his name dictionary writes: “A surname like Stevens may mean ‘son of Stephen’, ‘servant of Stephen’, or ‘servant at Stephen's house’, or it may be a metronymic (i.e., a name after one's mother) derived from a form Stevenes ‘Stephen's wife’... The -s of local surnames may be a plural inflexion (or a sign of French origin), but more often falls into one or other of the above classes.”[2]

This line of argument would suggest that Piggin and Piggins might have developed together back in the 13th or 14th century. Where there were men with the personal name or nickname "Piggin", one son might have made this into a surname unchanged and another might have added -s to show that he was the son of Piggin (or adopted the name of his widowed mother, Piggines, without changing it).

Another line of argument is that -s was added to the established surname Piggin at a later date for some grammatical reason. Reaney says of the -s that “sometimes, in late additions, it may be a dialectal pronunciation, with excrescent s”, and Weekley in his book The Romance of Names remarks that -s is generally only added to one- and two-syllable names where it is not necessary to add another syllable - "-es" - to pronounce it.[3]

The latter argument— that the -s was added later— seems to better match the actual usage of Piggin(s): it is a rare name found mainly in Norfolk and the East Midlands and both forms seem to persist side by side.

Of course this begs the question as to why some people in Norfolk or the Midlands would have added an -s to their name while others left the Piggin bare. One possibility is that the -s was added by strangers: neighbours or scribes for example. Those of us called Piggin know that the -s can be very “catching” even today. If people are unsure, they usually plump for an -s. This may be because they have most often heard or spoken our name in genitive positions in sentences (Piggin's place, paypacket, car...) or only because they compare it to the most well-known -iggin name, Higgins. Even in the 20th century a father or mother who could not read occasionally let their infant drop or add an s during the registration at birth. From other research I have done, I know of one case of Power becoming Powers within the last 100 years, and suspect some of the transformations into Piggins may have happened within the last 200 years. The other explanation, of a "dialectal pronunciation", means in effect that it "sounded better" with an -s to some Piggins. Although it sounds odd to our ears, we should not forget that in Wales for example, people were still adopting surnames for the first time in the 19th century and did not find it odd to be called Jones if they were a child of John, or Davies if they were a son of David. Hopefully we will discover some pattern in a complete list of the Piggin and Piggins families.

2. Would you know a piggin if you saw one?

One of the joys of this family name is the fact that it has a plain meaning in the English language. The word piggin was common for many centuries in the Midlands, North of England, Scotland and United States to describe a small wooden vessel made in the manner of a half barrel and having one stave longer than the rest for a handle.

Another meaning, apparently restricted to Scotland and the Border Country, was that of an earthenware pot or jar. In Scots, a pig is a crock in general, so some northerners linked this in their minds to the noun piggin.[4]

In the 19th century there was a cooper called Piggin in Norwich. Had he worked elsewhere he might have been able to market a "Piggin piggin", but this sort of wooden ladle may not have existed in Norfolk, or had another name there.

The word in its main meaning of a container used in milking and butter making has a long history and is found through many centuries in inventories and stocklists. From the Middle English period, dated 1334, we have: "Redd. domino per annum vj vasa et pygyn butiri".[5]

From 1554 comes “ij butter trowghis xiijd - iiij piggins iiijd”, which shows that a used piggin was worth one penny apiece.[6]

The uses of a piggin changed with the times. In some places people would sip their broth from a piggin, while a sailor might bail his boat or even carry tar in one. According to Les Piggin of Halifax, piggins were often used in the past for the sale of beer and the term survives to this day in dyehouses where stainless steel piggins are used to measure out pigments. David Piggin of Normanton adds that the word also referred to a ladle used on the old sailing ships to serve water. Thus, the issue of water was "a piggin a day". In West Yorkshire a piggin could even be made of tin, but still with its handle at the side, while in Westmoreland piggins were ultimately made not in the manner of barrels, but turned of solid wood. The word was by no means just utilitarian. It occurs in poetry. Robert Herrick wrote in the poem His Wish to God:

I would to God, that mine old age might have
Before my last, but here a living grave ...
A little piggin, and a pipkin by,
To hold things fitting my necessity,
Which, rightly us'd, both in their time and place,
Might me excite to fore, and after, grace.

The Oxford Dictionary remarks that the measure of a piggin varied widely from "holding near a pint" and "containing about a quart" (both Northumberland) to "holding from one to two gallons" (West Yorkshire). Anderson writes of a "three-quart piggin", while the English Dialect Dictionary says Ulsterfolk rate a piggin as "larger than a noggin". See the common meaning page of this website for a listing of that dictionary's citations.

The existence of the word piggin has almost certainly influenced the spelling of our name (see section 5 below), but one can state with certainty that it is not the origin of the family name. English surnames are not derived from household objects, but from personal names or places of origin or so-called nicknames, so we will have to look a little further for the family name's roots.

High diddle diddle,
The Cat and the Fiddle,        
The Cow jump'd o'er the moon,
The little dog laughed           
To see sich sport 
And the piggin ran after the spoon.

           - Shropshire version of a famous nursery rhyme

3. Are the Piggins all pigeons?

We now arrive at the riddle of where our name actually comes from. Among the possibilities that spring to mind is that we are the descendants of people who hail from some place called Piggin. There are certainly streets, yards, fields and woods with Piggin in the name, but no village called Piggin is disclosed in the Ordnance Survey gazetteer of the British Isles. The most similar-sounding place-name is perhaps Biggin and several of the Biggins in England are located close to areas of Piggin settlement, including the manor of Biggin near Buxton in the Peak District of Derbyshire. Alternatively, "Piggin" might be a forgotten place that is nothing more than an empty field or a wilderness today, but this seems unlikely.

Another, more likely possibility is that we bear a nickname that made fun of some characteristic of a Piggin forefather.

It is unappealing to think this was any connection with pigs (in Middle English pigs meant the young of swine or what we would now call piglets, not the fullgrown beasts) and it is implausible to suppose that anybody would bequeath such an uncomplimentary nickname as a surname to their children.[7]

Scarcely more appealing is the thought that the name might refer to a dove or pigeon — there is after all a superficial resemblance between Piggin and Pidgeon. A more extensive discussion of the name Pigeon can be found at Ian Pidgeon's website.

Any researcher who has consulted the International Genealogical Index (IGI), a microfiche listing of millions of birth and marriage records from around the world, will have been struck by the way its compilers grouped certain names together. Whereas in the United States listings, Piggin was classified under "Pagan", in England it was classified with "Pigeon". This was entirely sensible, given that spellings were formerly fluid and the manuscript sources are sometimes less than legible. For an index, the name could be reduced to its consonant essentials: P-G-N.

However there seems to be no historical evidence that all the P-G-N names sprang from a single source. It may well be that "Piggin-like" names, especially Pigon and Pigun, in 13th and 14th century documents are indistinguishable from "Pigeon"[8] but it was as clear then as now that the j sound in the middle of a word is not interchangeable with a hard g. The orthographic similarity arises purely from the lack of a symbol for j in pre-modern English. The letter i was used where it was unambiguously a consonant (and ultimately was given a curly tail and launched as a new letter).  In middle positions it became the rule to write -ge- or -dg- in words such as pigeon and to double the g in piggin to make the difference plain. The issue has yet to be treated in detail in the context of surnames by any onomastician.[9]

4. Piggin and Picken

 What has been discussed in more depth is the possible connection of Piggin(s) to the name Picken(s). Harrison in his name dictionary asserts that Piggin is found in the 14th century as Pickyn.[10] He refers the reader to his entry on Picken, which gives this etymology:

"For the French Pi(c)quin, Picon = Pic(q)  (see Pick) + the dim(inutive) suff(ix) -in, -on”.

The entry for Pick is fairly complex:

(Fr.) the French Pic, Picq, Picque =   

1 a nickname from the PIKE (weapon) (Fr. pique, a pike, spear; the same word as pic, a pick, and Ital. picca, a pike; also (Old English) pic, a pike: cp. Lat. pic-us a woodpecker)

2 a nickname from the WOODPECKER (Fr. pic, Lat. pic-us). Picus (mod. Pico) was an old Italian deity who, according to the legend, was changed by Circe into a woodpecker.

3 Dweller at a PEAK, POINTED HILL (Fr. pic(q) )

Hugh Pick.  - the Hundred Rolls

Walter Pik. - the Hundred Rolls


1 a weak form of Peak(e), q.v.

Ralph del Pikke. - Plac. de Quo Warr.

2 the A.-Sax. pers. name Pic. Picc (hardly Old English pic (n.), pitch (North. pi(c)k): it must therefore be a weak form of Old English pic (m.), a pike)

In addition to these examples we find one John Pyk witnessing a document at Chapel en le Frith, Derbyshire in 1343 (Wolley Charters).

As noted above, Reaney provides no discussion of "Piggin" but it does have this entry for Pickin:

Probably Old English *picing 'dweller on the hill'. see PIKE.

For Pike the entry reads as follows:

Pike, Pyke, Pick, Lepick:

(i) These surnames have various origins. The (Domesday Book) examples are from (Old English) pic 'point, pick-axe', and may have the same sense as the corresponding Scandinavian nickname Pic, 'a tall thin person'. Or it may denote a man armed with a pic, a pikeman. Later examples may have the same meaning or may be nicknames from (Old French) pic, (Latin) picus 'wood-pecker' or from (Middle English) pike 'pike, fish'. Alexander le pik (1292) was a fishmonger and owner of a ship. William, Robert and Stephen Pikeman (in the same record) were also fishmongers. Here, Pike and Pikeman are both from pike, the fish, and mean 'sellers of pike'.

(ii) (Old English) pic 'point' in the sense of 'hill'. From residence near a hill as at Pick Hill (Essex)...[11]

Charles Wareing Bardsley in A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames (1901) offers a similar explanation:

Piggins, Piggin, Pickin, Picking. – Bapt. 'the son of Richard' (!) Probably popular variations of Higgins, Higgin and Hickin, q.v. We still talk of higgledy-piggledy. The g in Picking is an excresence, as in Jennings, etc.

1386 Roger Pickyn, rector of Billingford, co. Norfolk, FF. viiij 194

1574-5. Anthony Pickins, co. Worc.: Reg. Univ. Oxf. vol ii. pt. ii, p. 59

1614-5 Anthony Piggin and Sarah Ireland: Marriage lic. (London) ii, 30

1619. Thomas Hoggery and Joan Piggyn: ibid p. 81

1807. Married – Daniel Daniel and Alice Picking: St. Geo. Han. Sq. ii. 364

London 0, 1, 1, 1: MDB (co. Linc.) 3, 0, 0, 0; co. Notts. 1, 5, 2, 0.

Since Harrison and Bardsley are the only dictionaries with a direct entry for Piggin, any of us who were curious about the name in the past have mostly assumed the Piggin/Pickin linkage is an established fact. Bardsley's reasoning is at least implicitly followed by Reaney, which says -in is a diminutive suffix, that is, it makes the plain name into a pet name. Reaney also says that there is little to distinguish -gg- from -ck- among diminutives of Richard like Dicken and Diggen. (Richard was pronounced both Rich-ard and Rick-ard). During the development of English and its dialects, there were times and places when soft c developed into a hard g consonant. Another example of this is for example Picot and Pigot, which Reaney treats as identical.[12]

5. Where the spelling came from

In the happy democracy of pre-modern spelling, people could be born with their name spelled one way, married in another and buried with a third. It is fairly safe to assume that a "Pyggen" or a "Piggon" or even a "Pigin" is one of the larger Piggin(s) clan. In many cases these variant spellings would have died out and been replaced by the standard "Piggin(s)" after a generation or two, but sometimes they would have stuck for good, and survive into modern times.

Apart from the standard Piggin and Piggins, the following modern spellings of the name can all be found in print: Piggen (a highwayman of 1679, one householder in Norwich 1988); Piggens (a Stepney man who died in the East Indies in 1653, an author of a book in the United States 1974); Piggon (a family in Warwickshire 1988); Peggin (a man, probably Scandinavian, who committed suicide in New York in 1903, a U.S. woman who did voluntary service in Britain until 1943); Pigan or Pygan (a settler in Connecticut in 1669, a woman who married there in 1709); Pigen (a man who married in Massachusetts in 1766 and a woman who married in 1667 in London); Pigin (a Norfolk householder in 1664, a man who had a son in Massachusetts in 1798, a London labourer in 1838, a woman who married in New Zealand in 1868, a woman who married in Tennessee in 1881); Pigon (a man giving a deposition to Samuel Pepys in 1665, a man who married in Virginia in 1848, a man who had a son in Massachusetts in 1851, a family in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1983, and a common mistranscription of Pigou).

As yet I have not discovered if these are variants of Piggin, or transformations of either Pidgeon or Peighan (recorded around 1650 in Yorkshire for Payne, but extinct today). Occasionally we meet the name Pighon in old documents.

There is a variety of European names that come close to Piggin.[13]

In the U.S. melting pot it can be particularly difficult to distinguish the name Piggin from similar-sounding names of quite different provenance, such as the names of American Indian tribes. The Pawnee have been variously known as the Paegin, Paygan or Peigan, and the Piikani have been called Piegan or Pigan at times. The rare American surnames Pegan and Pigan would appear to be Slavic in origin.[14]

Further confusion comes from the mistaken appearance in some U.S. family trees of the word pigan as if it were a Swedish surname: in fact it is merely an inflection of piga (young woman).

The probable reasons that the spelling of our name was standardised as "Piggin(s)" were firstly, the analogy with Higgin(s) and so on, and secondly, the fact that an accepted spelling existed for the wooden ladle, the piggin, allowing no confusion with "pigeon". Any normally literate person over the last 500 years would not have heard "pigeon" and written "Piggin", or vice versa, because he would have known how to write each word. Previous to that a scribe might have chosen other spellings, but would not have mixed them. In the fourteenth century for example, he would readily written "peion" for the bird and "pygyn" for the vessel.

A name has a powerful emotional significance and most of us insist on spelling it as it was given us. Personally I have sometimes toyed with dropping a g from my surname and ending it with an e as "Pigen", which might be phonetically more accurate. One reason of no great import for staying with the regular spelling is that the shape of the letters -iggi- often stands out in a text: I can often find my name by looking intensely at a page of print without bothering to read the text line by line.

Meanwhile, as we travel more, we face the problem of how to write the name in other alphabets. Here are some transcriptions of Piggin:

Russian:   [to come]   

Japanese:  [to come]   

Arabic: [to come]

Completed 13 April 1988, revised 6 November 1998 and 22 December 2008.

[1] Possessive proper nouns, grammatically speaking genitive forms of the substantive, are more common than most literate people expect. For example, there are genitive forms in the names Journalists Union or Reuters, and these ought to be strictly written with apostrophes, but the custom today is no longer to do so. The firm or home of a Smith is commonly called Smith's and we commonly write: "I bought it at Smiths," and are not quite certain if we mean the plural or the genitive. Only if we say "The Smiths" is it clearly plural.

[2] Percy H. Reaney, A Dictionary of British Surnames, London, Routledge and Paul, 1958. The arguments in the introduction to this book (pages xxxi-xxxiv) are not always clear, but Reaney classifies these phenomena as follows: plurals of surnames from localities such as Hales (1180), which can be found quite early; elliptic genitives from occupation names where a "le" was later dropped, e.g. Parsons from Alicia le Parsones, the parson's servant; elliptic genitives from Old English, Scandinavian or Norman French personal names; some other unexplained phenomenon such as a confusion with French nominative singular endings; the creation of women's surnames ending in -es to denote either a widow or a married woman; and an addition of an unnecessary -s to conform with the pattern of words in local dialects. The late Philip J. Dance provides an excellent survey of the history of English surname studies, including an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the Reaney approach. For titles relating to onomastics, see the Academy of St. Gabriel booklist.

[3] A glance through the London phone books shows that this can for example occur with one-syllable names ending in -g (Rigg, Riggs), in -w (Law, Laws) and in both one- and two-syllable names ending in -l (Hill, Hills; Howell, Howells), in -r (Barr, Barrs; Mather, Mathers), in -nd (Hinde, Hinds; Edmond, Edmonds), in -y (Hay, Hayes; Davy, Davies), in -m (Thom, Thoms; Ingram, Ingrams) and in -n (Hain, Haines; Perkin, Perkins). Weekley describes this "phonetic rule" as follows: "The majority of monosyllabic, and many dissyllabic, local names are commonly found with -s, originally due to analogy with Wills, Jones, etc., where -s is the sign of the genitive. It will be found that this addition of -s in local names generally takes place whenever it does not involve an extra syllable or any exertion in pronunciation, e.g. Birks but Birch, Noakes but Nash, Marks  but March, Meadows but Field, Sykes but  Sich ... This -s is also added to specific place names, e.g. Cheales from Cheal (Linc.), Tarbox from Tarbock (Lanc.), ... Rhymes from Ryme (Dors.), etc." — Ernest Weekley, The Romance of Names, quoted in Reaney.

[4] The general definition is from A Glossary of the Dialect of the Hundred of Lonsdale (Lancashire). For the other meanings see the English Dialect Dictionary, ed. Joseph Wright, London, Henry Frowde, 1898-; The claim in the Oxford English Dictionary that piggin"is not prevalent in Scotland" seems to be refuted by seven quotations from various parts of Scotland in The Scottish National Dictionary (eds. William Grant, David A. Murison, Scottish National Dictionary Association, 1968). The Dictionary attributes the sense of crock “to confusion with PIG, which is a different word".

[5] Middle English Dictionary, ed. Sherman M. Kuhn, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan, 1954- (1983). The 14th-century use is sourced to P. Vinogradoff, Villainage in England: Essays in English Medieval History, 1892, document in the Survey Denbigh, p. 275.

[6] Oxford English Dictionary, from Lanc. Wills (1857), p. 113.

[7] Harrison links the name Pigg to a Scandinavian prefix that indicated a young female of any creature. It speculates on a link between the English word and pige-svin in Danish-Norwegian and postulates that "in common usage -svin was dropped". In modern Swedish, piga means a maid.

[8] For example, William Pigun (1200), Alan Pigun (1200), relicta Pygon (1296) (all in Reaney); Johannes Pigun (1211), Thomas Pigun (1260), Thomas Pigoun (1313) (all in Kuhn).

[9] Scribes in the Middle English period did not have any standard spelling to fall back on. When they confronted the task of writing down the sound "dsh" in "pidgeon", they might use the precursor of modern j, an i (from the 11th to the 17th century according to the Shorter Oxford): "peion"; or -ge-, as in "George": "pigeon"; or plain g, which represented the newly evolved sound of "dsh" in older words that had once had the voiced palatal stop g: "pigon". The Middle English listings have been compiled by reputable scholars who know their way around this inchoate spelling system and if they say that "Pigun" is pronounced the same as, and is the ancestor of, "Pidgeon", one cannot quarrel with that. But no scholar asserts that modern-day Piggins are actually the progeny of these ancient Pidgeons. It could even be that Pigeon has nothing to do with birds, but is a descendant of some 12th-century Piggin! The Shorter Oxford Dictionary observes that the voiced palatal stop of Old English, g, developed into the complex "dsh" sound in early Middle English. For "Pigeon" to become "Piggin" there would have had to be a sound transformation in the other direction, from soft "dsh" sound of pigeon to the hard g of Piggin. I do not know of such a sound-shift in any other word. In any event, more documentation is needed for both these names and their locations.

[10] Harrison, Henry, Surnames of the United Kingdom; London, 1912-1918. The author does not give a citation for the source of Pickyn=Piggin and his hypothesis raises more questions than it answers. Why for example were the two forms interchangeable at such a late date? Why is the -in of Piggin a suffix rather than part of the original name? Where did he find Picon and why does he link it to French pic and not Old English pic? Reaney, writing 40 years later, charges justly that Harrison "only very occasionally gives any evidence and a large number of his etymologies are clearly based on the modern form". It is instructive to compare the name Piggin with others in English that end in "-iggin", assuming that there was a dialectal transformation of the middle consonant from voiced g to unvoiced c or vice versa. There are at least 15 names in English ending in "-iggin", of which at least six have corresponding forms in C. All the following names appear in the London telephone directory:

DigganDigginsDickinDickens(linked by Reaney)
 FigginsFicken (different origins)
HigginHigginsHickin (linked by Reaney)
 Liggins Lickens(not both covered)
PigginPigginsPickinPickens(not both covered)
WigginWiggins Wickens(different origins)

Biggin/Biggins, Giggins, Jiggins, Quiggin, Riggins, Siggins, Shiggins and Stiggins all exist, but do not have any corresponding "-ickin" form. Twiggins appears to be of Scottish origin. Further investigation of these pairs would require a study of the regional distribution of each of the above names. As far as the pair Piggin/Pickin is concerned, Pickin is found alongside Piggin in most parts of the English Midlands today, being approximately twice as common overall as Piggin. It seems to be most common today in the West Midlands region where Piggin is uncommon, which might suggest that it could be the West Midlands variant of our name, but this is difficult to prove. Some material on the name Pickens can be found on John Pickens' website.

[11] The examples quoted are: (i) Aluric, Alwinus Pic 1066 DB (D, So); Fulco  picus 12th DC (L); Hugo Pik 1177 P (O); Robert Le pic 1191 P (W); Henry  Picke 1221 AssWo; William le Pyc 1296 SRSx; Nicholas Pyke 1344 FFC. (ii) Thomas del Pic 1220 FFEss; Ralph del Pik' 1292 QW (Herts). The reader interested in the sources should consult Reaney. The fishmongers are sourced to 1292 SRLo. Pick Hill was the home of Reginald de Pike (t Hy 3 PN Ess 29).

[12] The full list is: Rich, Richings, Ritchie; Hitch, Hitchcock, Hitchen, Hitchman, Hitchmough; Ricard, Rick, Ricky; Hick, Hicken, Hicklin, Hickman, Hickmott, Hickox; Higgett, Higgins, Higgs; Dick, Dickels, Dicken, Dickin, Dicketts, Dickie; Digg, Diggen.

[13] Fratelli Pighin S.r.l. is a vineyard (Case Pighin: Google Maps) at Risano in northern Italy, the area in which this name would seem to be native. See the history (written by the US importer) of the business, which began in 1963, and some contact details. For other members of the Pighin family, see for example the Wikipedia article (in Italian) about Otello Pighin (1912-1945).

[14] The Pegan family comes from Gabrije na Primorska in Slovenia, according to Lawrence V. Galati of Pittsburgh, PA on his website. Pigan is thought to come from the name of a village on the Polish-Ukrainian border, according to George Pigan in a personal communication in October 1998.

© Jean-Baptiste Piggin 2000-2009
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