Mr. Balls, your days are numbered

ESPN fantasy analyst Tristan Cockcroft: one of a dying breed.

What would you do if you were cursed with an embarrassing British surname like Balls, Handcock or Shufflebottom?

According to a new survey conducted by King’s College, you would probably change it ASAP.

Or else, flee the country to a land where giggling about “Mr. Cock, your table is ready” isn’t a problem…

The number of people in Britain with surnames like Cockshott, Balls, Death and Shufflebottom — likely the source of schoolroom laughter — has declined by up to 75 percent in the last century.

A study found the number of people with the name Cock shrank to 785 last year from 3,211 in 1881, those called Balls fell to 1,299 from 2,904 and the number of Deaths were reduced to 605 from 1,133.

People named Smellie decreased by 70 percent, Dafts by 51 percent, Gotobeds by 42 percent, Shufflebottoms by 40 percent, and Cockshotts by 34 percent, said Richard Webber, visiting professor of geography at King’s College, London.

“If you find the (absolute) number goes down, it’s either because they changed their names or they emigrated,” Webber, author of the study, told Reuters on Wednesday.

He said that in many cases, people probably changed their surnames as they came to be regarded as in bad taste. “It’s because the meaning of words can change. Take the name Daft — that as a term for a stupid is a relatively recent innovation.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Daft meant “mild” or “meek” in Old English, whereas it means “foolish” today.

“That’s why there are names which people think aren’t really very pleasant names and you wonder why they persisted as long as they did.”

Webber, whose work can be seen on the website, got his data for 2008 from credit card firm Experian and mapping service Geowise. He then compared it with the census of 1881.

Webber also discovered that the most popular names in Britain have not changed over the past 127 years. Last year, Smith, Jones, Williams, Brown, Taylor and Davies held the top five spots, in exactly the same order as they did a century ago.

According to the Daily Mail, today’s laughable Mr. Cock is a descendant of a brash, arrogant clan, while Mr. Death’s forebears were big time stars of the  medieval mystery play…

But today, these poor souls fall victim to something called “the dirty snigger”…don’t try saying that five times fast.

They have history on their side but several of Britain’s most ancient surnames seem to have been doomed by prudishness and the dirty snigger.

Not many people these days want to be known as Mr Death, Mrs Daft or Ms Smellie, but even fewer, it seems, fancy being saddled with surnames such as Cock and Balls.

The decline of Cock and suggestive variants including Handcock, Glascock and Cockshott is revealed in a survey of Britain’s surnames between 1881 and today.

The research, released yesterday by credit agency Experian, also reveals that Bottom and the undignified alternatives Shufflebottom and Longbottom have also gone into steep decline.

The names are unlikely to have been intended as rude when they were first applied in medieval times.

A man would have been called Cock because he strutted like a cockerel – the word is not known to have been used in its cruder sense before the 17th century.

Similarly, the surname Balls – perhaps to the chagrin of Children’s Secretary Ed Balls – indicated neither sexual prowess nor courage, but just meant your father had the now-forgotten first name Balle, a Viking import.

ed balls
Secretary Balls: Renowned for his courage. And his grapefruit-sized nards.

Bottom originally meant simply the bottom of a valley, according to genealogy expert David Hey.

‘In the Middle Ages “daft” meant meek – it was a perfectly acceptable name,’ he told The Times.

But the comedy value of Bottom was not lost on William Shakespeare, who gave it to the buffoonish workman who gets turned into an ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

And today these names inevitably suggest a crude or insulting meaning.

The 1881 census recorded more than 3,000 people with the surname Cock but data for last year showed just 785 were left – a fall of more than three quarters.

Smellie has plummeted almost as much in popularity, from nearly 1,400 to little over 400 – even though this Scots name is properly pronounced ‘Smiley’.

Death, though probably given initially to someone who had played the highly respectable allegorical role of Death in a medieval play, has sometimes been disguised over the years as De’Ath, as if it came from the Norman French aristocracy.

But that hasn’t prevented its dizzying fall in popularity since 1881, when there were 1,133 Deaths or De’Aths, to today, when there are just over half that number.

So why the decline? Do these family names now carry such a stigma that no one will marry in to them?

More probably, individuals have altered their embarrassing surnames by deed poll or, in the case of men, by taking their wives’ surnames at marriage.

Most of all, parents will have been prompted to change a surname to spare their children’s blushes.

In a terrifically ironic development, one of the names on the rise in Britain is Wang:

Webber also found that between 1996 and 2008, the names Zhang, Wang, and Yang and experienced the fastest growth. Zhang rose by 4719 percent, while Wang grew by 2225 percent.

Here now is the official list of embarrassing names, as determined by their rate of disappearance from Britain since 1881:

  1. Cock              -76%
  2. Smellie          -71%
  3. Handcock     -61%
  4. Spier              -56%
  5. Balls               -55%
  6. Wilcocks       -52%
  7. Daft                 -51%
  8. Death             -47%
  9. Gotobed        -42%
  10. Shufflebottom   -40%
  11. Bottom          -36%
  12. Jelly              -34%
  13. Cockshott   -34%
  14. Cockroft      -33%
  15. Bulcock       -32%
  16. Longbottom  -32%
  17. Glasscock    -31%

Farewell, Captain Cockshott.

Adieu, Lady Jelly.

Bon voyage, Sir Smellie.

You will be missed.

Mr. Wang, your table is ready.

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