Documented origins of the Phethean surname

The Phethean surname has caused much discussion and one is often faced with the question “Is it Cornish?” or “Its Welsh” and even “ Is it Greek?”. Traditional etymological studies have suggested that the surname (and the more common form Phythian) is derived from the early French/Latin root “Vivian / Vivianus” – from vivus “living”.

Guppy (1890) records the Vivian surname only in Cornwall, and notes that it is the family name of the barons of Swansea. Bardsley (1901) records Phythian and Phethean as “ ‘son of Fithion’ i.e Vivian” and provides a short list of various other spellings and their sources and dates.

Reaney (1961 p143) states that the French root Vivian has provided an interesting lesson in phonetic development, which includes the names Videan, Vidgeon, Fiddian, Fidgen, Phethean and Phythian. Reaney (1961 p31-32) also discusses the dialectical variation in England of the name Vivian. In the south of England, “v” was regarded as the normal pronunciation of “f” and was replaced with it, so Vivian became Fifian or Fyvyan or even Phivien. Some of these forms then became corrected to Phythien and Fythien.

Reaney and Wilson (1976 p468) describe several variations on the Vivian surname, noting V being “replaced by “F” in the south of England together with scribal variations between F and Ph”. They attribute the origins of the Vivian/Vivien to the name of a 5th-century martyr which became “not uncommon” in England from the 12th century. They also provide a short history of various spellings with dates and sources, although some of the earliest records describe the name being used as a first-name not a surname i.e. Johannes filius Viuian, 1175.

Cottle (1978 p400) comments that the surname Vivian is a derivative of the Latin adjective “Living” and also the name of a 5th-century martyr. Cottle also describes the form Vyvyan as “an ostentatious form that before printing, had the excuse of greater legibility”. He does not mention any other derivatives of the name except Phythian.

It is notable that none of the above authors record the existence of the Phy or Phe versions of the name prior to about 1580 even though my own research has demonstrated that they existed well before that date (as far back as 1250 in Cambridgeshire)

Weekley (1916) advocates an Anglo-Saxon/Middle English root: “Frithu, peace, has given us many favourite font-​names which have later become surnames, e.g. Domfrith (Dumphrey, Dumpress), Frithugar (Fricker), Frithmund (Fiddy-​ment ) . To the last name, or to some other component of Frithu, such as the once favourite Frithu-​swith or Friswid, patron saint of the University of Oxford, belong Fiddy, Fiddian, Phythian, Phethean. This element often becomes Free in modem surnames, e.g. Freestone from Frithustan, Freelove from Frithulaf. It also appears in Frizzle, Froysell, which in Scotland has unaccountably become Frazer ..”


Bardsley, C.W.E., (1901), A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, Frowde

Cottle, B., (1967), The Penguin Dictionary of Surnames, Harmondsworth, Penguin

Guppy, H.B., (1890), The Homes of Family Names, London: Harrison & Sons

Reaney, P.H., (1961), A dictionary of British surnames, London : Routledge

Reaney, P.H., Wilson, R.M., (1976), A dictionary of British Surnames, London, Routledge, 2nd edition

Weekley, Ernest, (1916), Surnames, London, Murray

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