What's in a Name?

What's in a Name?

A problem for all family members is the spelling and pronunciation of the Name YONGE. First to clear up some obvious points. It is pronounced like the adjective "young" and it is not Dutch or even Chinese in origin.

There are two ways of approaching the issue of why from the latter half of the  17th to the early 18th century two branches of the same family spelt their surname differently YONGE and YOUNG.  The two ways are Looking at all possible family documents of the period and what can be called the  sstatistical /linguistic approach.

Family documents

John Yonge senior and his wife Joanna Blackaller were married on the 21st September 1640. It is believed to have been settled in the Plymouth area by 1640’s. The marriage entry for St Savours Dartmouth showing Johns surname as spelt YOUNGE. That of course could just be the clerk’s interpretation. This is a problem with many documents which have not been complied by a family member themselves. With spellings not fixed and different people having their own ideas there is never going to be absolute consistency in written sources.

John senior and his wife  had four sons - two sons of whom married and had children, Dr  James Yonge, the Plymouth doctor and Nathaniel  and two sons, John junior and Samuel who had no children.  Whatever the cause of the difference and any variations among themselves it is clear that all the descendants of Dr James spelt the name YONGE and all the descendants of Nathaniel spelt it YOUNG

Looking at documentary evidence at the time this shows:

1) In property deeds,  John seniors name is spelt in both versions. Four that appear for The  and West Devon Record Office have the spelling YOUNG and two YONGE

2) That Dr James in his published books uses the spelling YONGE. He also uses that spelling in communications with the Royal Society and members of that Society. That spelling is also use in the Plymouth Municipal record in every case where I have found a reference to him. Also all his property deeds are in the YONGE spelling

4) That Samuel in his published books always uses the spelling YOUNG. The spelling YOUNG is also used in some five different funeral bills on his death

5) That the John junior  is referred to in the records of the East India Company as YOUNG

            6) We have three relevant wills surviving. The spellings are JAMES YONGE, NATHANIEL YOUNG AND JOHN [junior] YOUNG.

            However Dr James in his will refers to Nathaniel’s sons using the YONGE spelling but for their mother the spelling YOUNGE so perhaps one is sometimes reading too   much into the spellings!

            Nathaniel in his will uses YOUNG throughout including when referring to Dr James.

            John  junior only refers to his brother  by their Christian names but when referring to his father uses the spelling YOUNG.

In several documents I have found Samuel Nathaniel and John (L2) are described using the spelling YONGE. In both these documents however  Dr James  is also a party and the lead party.

The document ilustrated refers to an account in the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office being an account prepared on the death of Samuel. It show the surname of his widow Dorothy spelt YOUNG while his brother's, Dr. James,  is spelt YONGE.

There is no real  indication of whether John senior was a supporter of parliament or not. However Dr. James who was born during the civil war, in 1647, and who was initially a non conformist, but who became a strong and fervent royalist  and wrote and published "Several Evidences" to try to prove that the 17th defence of the monarchy "Eikon Basilike" was indeed written by Charles the First. This work and works by writers such as Bacon, Boyle and Sydenham appear in the background of the portrait of him, which is reproduced in the Introduction.

There is a tradition in the family that  these strong views of Dr. James on the unlawfulness of the execution of Charles 1 so enraged his brother Nathaniel that in order to distance himself from such royalist views, Nathaniel changed the spelling of his name to YOUNG.

It could be that it was  Dr James who because of the row changed his name but if so it is unlikely to be because of a great ideological split leading to a breach between the two brothers. Dr James clearly disliked Nathaniel (see below) but probably because of his interference in the affairs of Plymouth. Dr James brother Samuel who was an extreme and radical dissenter occasioned none of the invective that Nathaniel does. More likely Dr James being a socially climbing Anglican conformist felt the need to distance himself from his non conformist brothers

However in the papers of the College of Arms relating to the petition for arms by Dr James son James (M7) and Nathaniel’s son William M11  (a joint application would suggest the two branches of the family were not split then ) the spelling YONGE is used for both cousins.

Another story is that there was a dispute over the books in the library between William Young,  a son of Nathaniel and James Yonge a son of Dr James or between Dr James and his brother Nathaniel. This is itself would not seem a very likely ground. In any event, as mentioned below, William and James made a joint application for arms, which would not suggest a bitter conflict and further the difference was already apparent before they were adults .

In the application for arms by the family, made in 1725, there is a note on the pedigree held by the College of arms that that Dr James changed the spelling to YONGE.  This is indicative though not conclusive that Dr James made the change.

What is not in dispute is that Dr James and his brother Nathaniel did not get on. In his Journal Dr. James writes that following Nathaniel’s marriage to Joan Toller a match which my father and mother were so enamoured that I never saw them better pleased.... my father who would never settle a penny on my elder brother John or myself in marriage now gave £100 in money... and gave him present possession of the house I lived in ..... was the general wonder of the town that I who had a great family  .... should be turned out of doors to make way for a younger brother.  At the time of Nathaniel’s marriage the eldest son John was dead and under accepted law and practice James would have expected to receive the bulk of his fathers property in preference to his younger brother’s and the father's actions would have seemed very unusual.

Relations with Nathaniel obviously never improved. For 1698  Dr. James Journal reads March 14th this year my brother Nathaniel died. I was not concerned with him, there being some disgust on account of being engaged to change the charter [of Plymouth] , and put that indignity upon me. He was a zealous Whig and thought to have got that cause rampant here, and for which failing and for which being hated, he sickened and died.

Dr James made no reference to the name change in his Journal or his Plymouth Memoirs. The published Journal uses the spelling YONGE in the index but the index is modern and it could be that the editor decided on one spelling for clarity. There is one reference in the original manuscript Journal “Married I were to my wife Jane YONGE on the twenty eighth day of March 1671.” Also in his Journal, Dr. James uses two spellings - one for himself and another for his brother John,  "Coming home [25 Sept 1669], I found my elder brother, John Young, ingaged in a voyage to the Eastindia with one Captain Parrick in the 'Zant' friggat,"

It could be that in reality there is no big mystery or family split occasioning the different spellings it may be nothing more than the fact it was not really until about this time that the spelling began to settle down to YONGE and the two brothers for no good reason each chose different spellings.

This I think is unlikely. In conclusion I would suggest that it was Dr James who made the change to what then would have been a more antique form of spelling. As to why he did it, believe what you like! My own guess and it is only a guess is that he adopted this spelling to separate himself away from Samuel. Samuel was a puritan fanatic and from Nathaniel who had Puritan leanings. Dr James being part of the Church of England conforming establishment and rising up in the World could well have felt the need to have a clear identity separate from his brothers.

The spelling YONGE may have been a little old fashioned but it had not died out and Dr James as a conservative member of the establishment could have been perfectly happy in adopting the old spelling.

Lastly the fact that John senior  and John junior and the other brothers Nathaniel and Samuel use or normally use the spelling YOUNG would suggest that they stuck with that spelling and it was Dr James who changed. It is far more likely  that one would  change the spelling rather than four.

Statistical/linguistic approach

While there are no fixed and hard and fast rules, cclearly in the 15th and 16th centuries the YONGE spelling was common but YOUNG was also used. In the 17th century and before the name is spelt in many different versions. There is YONGE YOUNG YOUNGE YONG and others. Chaucer spelt the adjective YONGE but that was quite a time before and although Chaucer and although printing helped to firm up spellings, it was still fluid and not consistent in the 17th century.

This argument is essentially statistical, and the issue is one of orthography - or orthodoxy in writing.  In general, before the Civil War spelling was a matter of personal taste.  Academics suggest that the written English language had been codified by 1550, however, we can see from the parish records of the early 1600s that successive children of the same parents were still being registered by the same parson with differently-spelled surnames.

From 1650, there was a general trend to standardise written English, and it became decreasingly acceptable to write down simply what you thought you heard in your own style.  This was the period where the innovative dictionaries of Johnson and Swift, among others, were created.  This was also going on precisely in the period of Dr James.

Spelling the adjective "young" with a 'u' was indeed part of the gamut before spelling was standardised, however it seems to have been rarely used in the South west of England for surnames.   Prior to the Civil War, "young" - either as a name or as a simple adjective -  is spelled in a wide varieties of ways: Yong, Yonge, Yung, Younge. 

 A search of all "Y" records for Sturminster Newton and the rest of Dorset showed that, in the 1500s, "Yonge" was commonplace while "Young" was unknown.  In the 1650s, the two were both in use, while after about 1700, "Young" had completely taken over.  There is no indication that all the "Yonge" families had died out to be replaced by unrelated "Young" migrants.  It seems more likely that the formerly "Yonge" families adopted the fashionable spelling of the period which then became fixed.

A search of the Parish records of St Andrews, Plymouth between 1550 and 1650 appears to tell the same evolutionary story.  For example, the first "Young" is a reference to  marriages 1641 (John Young married Ann Pitt).  Younge (with that terminal 'e') goes back to 1588.  Otherwise, they all tend to be "Yonge".

Consequently it could be argued  that it is more likely that a pre-Civil-War family in the South West of England would spell their name "Yonge".

It is, of course, quite possible that  John senior came from somewhere outside the south west, which would certainly undermine  any statistical approach.  Dartmouth where we have the first record of him, at that time attracted people from all over England.

So while this approach suggests that YONGE would have been the original spelling and thus that Dr James was not the one who changed , family documents suggest for this family it was the other way round.

It may of course be that we may be ascribing significance retrospectively to a phenomenon that, at the time, was considered quite trivial, like a personal quirk, which over time became became fixed.  Whatever the reason it certainly complicates researching the early origins of the family!

R.I. Yonge 2008

Glenn Armstrong 11.12.2020 16:58

I hasten to add that this is not some kind of information gathering cold-call. I have a miniature painting of your Dr Yonge of Plymouth as a child to share.

Ian Yonge 11.12.2020 13:53


Thanks. You can email me on iyonge@legalisp.net


Glenn Armstrong 11.12.2020 13:40

Hello there - I have recently bought an item that I believe would be of great interest to your family. Drop me a line and I'll be able to reply with images.

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