Where does the surname Bishop come from?
November 22, 2005 6:03 AM   Subscribe

The Smiths are descended from a blacksmith. The Potters are descended from a potter. But priests can't get married or have legitimate children, so where on earth does the last name Bishop come from?

Yes, I know priests used to be able to get married and have children, but that was long before surnames became common in Europe, so that's not the answer.

And yes, I know that sometimes a priest will father a child. But he can't marry the child's mother or give the child his last name, so that's hardly any help.

What gives?
posted by nebulawindphone to Human Relations (17 answers total)
it's only catholic priests that can't get married, afaik.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:06 AM on November 22, 2005

Oftentimes, a family would take the name of their landlord or the noble upon whom they relied for protection. Therefore, a modern-day Bob Bishop might be descended from a serf who tilled a bishop's land.
posted by mds35 at 6:10 AM on November 22, 2005

Response by poster: D'oh. Can Anglican priests get married? (I'm pretty sure Orthodox priests aren't the answer, since Bishop is an English surname.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:11 AM on November 22, 2005

yes (in fact there was special dispensation so that married anglican priests could move to the catholic church when they allowed - shock, horror - women priests).
posted by andrew cooke at 6:14 AM on November 22, 2005

Response by poster: Should have thought of that. I'm from the US, and there aren't too many Episcopalians in my neck of the woods, so it didn't even occur to me.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:21 AM on November 22, 2005

Nebula: No sweat. I have a friend who was in college before she realized that everyone wasn't Catholic. (She's from Pittsburgh.)
posted by peppermint22 at 6:30 AM on November 22, 2005

One out of every 16 people in Pittsburgh is an Episcopalian.

(The Diocese reports 20,000 members, Pittsburgh reports 330,000 people - that means @6% or one in 16)

Methodists also have married Bishops.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:16 AM on November 22, 2005

Just to straighten the Orthodox thing out since doesn't apply to the English name "Priest" (though it is responsible for "Pappas," see below.) The rules here definitely apply to the Greek Orthodox Church; there may be minor differences I'm not aware of for the other Orthodox churches):

1) Greek Orthodox priests may be married but this has to happen before they become priests.

2) Bishops and up can't be married. Also they tend to come up via the monastic track vs. the parish priest track but I'm not sure if that's technically necessary.

Typically (say ~100 years ago) village priests were married and often teachers were recruited by the church to become priests (every village needed one) as literacy was rare among the common folk but a pretty good thing to have in a priest; that's how my great-grandfather became one.* Thanks to their abundance and reproductive capacity, "Pappas" is one of the most, if not the most, common Greek surname in the English-speaking world.**

Also the above rules apply to the Eastern Rite Catholic churches, which are an interesting subset of Catholicism that retain Eastern Orthodox liturgy, laws and other customs but are subject to the Pope of Rome.

*His surname was originally Pseftelis which literally means "liar." Of course the bishop didn't think that was fitting for a priest so he was forced to change it to something more acceptable. Then after taking the holy orders he and his family were referred to as the "Pappadimtriea," literally the "Father Jameses."

**As above, a priest and his family would effectively take "Pappa"+ his first name as a surname. Thus you'll see a lot of Pappadimetrious, Pappayiannis, Pappageorgeous and Pappanicolaus in Greece. Often these names were too much for immigration authorities and the name was shortened to "Pappas" on entry documents.

posted by Opposite George at 7:49 AM on November 22, 2005

Just to reaffirm what was earlier said, most likely a Bishop is someone whose ancestor worked for in some capacity or lived near by one of the clergy. I would also guess that this would be the most widely spread reason for folks as well, other than descendants of Anglican clergy spreading around.
posted by Atreides at 7:51 AM on November 22, 2005

It's also worth mentioning that not all surnames are so literally and conveniently derived from ancestral occupation.

This link suggests that the etymology of the word Bishop comes to us from Old English, derived from Latin and Greek roots from a word that literally meant "watcher" or "overseer".
posted by planetthoughtful at 8:31 AM on November 22, 2005

nebulawindphone, if it makes you feel any better, my father is a minister and I have been asked literally dozens of times in my life how it is possible for him to have children.
posted by nanojath at 8:45 AM on November 22, 2005

Mormons also have bishops, they move them around from time to time.some say this is so the kids won't all look alike!
posted by hortense at 9:14 AM on November 22, 2005

From a genealogy site:
Bishop: An occupational name in old English, hopefully not the son of a celibate medieval prelate, but one who worked in his household.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:39 AM on November 22, 2005

Best answer: From Elsdon C. Smith's American Surnames:
The BISHOP (BISCHOFF in Germany) usually indicated one who was a member of the bishop's entourage or who played the part of the bishop in play or pageant. Some, however, arose from previous residence in Bischof in Germany or in one of the towns including the word in its name in England. Biscop was also an Old English personal name which would be the basis of some family names...

Surnames connected with the church... sometimes arise from nicknames applied to men who exhibited some ecclesiastical accomplishment, moral trait, or mannerism. People are quick to deprecate another when they think he is exhibiting a "holier than thou" attitude toward them, and a contemptuous nickname is an easy way to accomplish one's purpose.
See, it's not as simple as it looks at first glance.

This link suggests that the etymology of the word Bishop comes to us from Old English, derived from Latin and Greek roots from a word that literally meant "watcher" or "overseer".

But that's completely irrelevant to the family name, which is based on the English meaning, not the Ancient Greek one.
posted by languagehat at 10:44 AM on November 22, 2005

The common Lebanese surname Khouri means priest. To make things more confusing, it comes from the French word cure. The name, according to lore, goes back to the days of the Crusades. The Khouri's of Lebanon supposedly are the descendants of Frankish priests, who were supposed to be celibate.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:39 AM on November 22, 2005

I think that "bishop" should be considered here as a heavily symbolic title rather than as a line of work (like "smith"). "Pope" and "King" are common surnames too and the cause for these must be similar. In France, lots of people are called "Levêque" (the bishop) and "Lepape" (and "Leroy") too and it's a catholic country where priests don't marry.
posted by elgilito at 1:33 PM on November 22, 2005

Did you even read my comment, elgilito? It's known where these names come from; we don't have to make wild guesses.
posted by languagehat at 4:10 PM on November 22, 2005

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