Knowledge is power. But France is not bacon.

 

Many of you may already know the account of a man who misunderstood the famous quotation and turned it into an infamous one (debatable!). For those who do not know about it, here it is:

“When I was young my father said to me: “Knowledge is Power….Francis Bacon” I understood it as “Knowledge is power, France is Bacon”. For more than a decade I wondered over the meaning of the second part and what was the surreal linkage between the two? If I said the quote to someone, “Knowledge is power, France is Bacon” they nodded knowingly. Or someone might say, “Knowledge is power” and I’d finish the quote “France is Bacon” and they wouldn’t look at me like I’d said something very odd but thoughtfully agree. I did ask a teacher what did “Knowledge is power, France is bacon” meant and got a full 10 minute explanation of the Knowledge is power bit but nothing on “France is bacon”. When I prompted further explanation by saying “France is Bacon?” in a questioning tone I just got a “yes”. I just accepted it as something I’d never understand. It wasn’t until years later I saw it written down that the penny dropped.”

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What I found more interesting about all this is the fact that the misunderstanding was caused, mainly, by the unfortunate name-surname combination. Then I started to ask why someone would have such a ‘strange’ (my naïve opinion) surname as Bacon. Later I realized that such ‘unusual’ family names were much more common than I could ever imagine. And I found some that are more, let us say, unorthodox than ‘Bacon’.

Recent research carried out by Professor Richard Webber [King’s College, London] has brought to light an interesting and puzzling conundrum. It has been noticed that many “old” British surnames have been disappearing in recent years; old names which have been used for generations are being lost. We think the reason maybe that in modern times people have become increasingly embarrassed to hold “funny” and unusual names that may make other people laugh.

Names like: Cock, Daft, Death, Smellie, Gotobed, Shufflebottom, Willy, Nutters, Piggs and Jelly have declined seriously in the past century or so. We imagine that these people have changed their names to something innocuous.

The 2008 population, when compared to that in 1881 [using Census figures], shows that the number of Cocks has shrunk by 75%, while the number of people called Balls or Daft has fallen by more than 50%.

Some things have not changed, however. In 1881 the most popular surnames were, in order, Smith, Jones, Williams, Brown, Taylor, Davies, Wilson, Evans and Thomas; those top nine names are still in the exactly the same order of popularity today.

Do you happen to know any misunderstanding caused by a ‘peculiar’ name?

 

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