Help me identify this locution
October 1, 2015 9:26 AM   Subscribe

There's a certain phrase that is usually associated with old money Northeastern WASPs of the form "$FIRSTNAME $LASTNAME, of the $LOCATION $LASTNAME[S]".

You can see an example of it in this article about Lincoln Chafee , "of the Rhode Island Chafees," or more jestingly in this comment on the Blue. My question is, where does it come from? Can it be traced to a specific literary source, or was it a common expression among old money WASPs in the Northeast once upon a time? Is it even something old money WASPs in the Northeast would have said?
posted by Cash4Lead to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
As far as I know, it's also common amongst old money in the UK. I've read it, seen it on TV and heard it in films about the upper classes in the UK. "Are you related to the Yorkshire Dwyers?" "No, the Devon Dwyers". That sort of thing.

I think, in the UK at any rate and probably the same in monied WASP circles, it's a subtle way of identifying where you are in the social pecking order and how rich you or your family is (or was).
posted by essexjan at 9:37 AM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

It is something old money WASPs would have said... and do still say. I've been asked if I'm of "the $Location $Lastnames" before.

But it actually predates that. It shows up in Jane Austen, among others. Back in the proverbial day, it was a way of judging if you had a common acquaintance with someone. "Oh, Mr. Locke -- of the Bath Lockes?"
posted by pie ninja at 9:38 AM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

I suspect it goes well back before settlement of North America as well. Especially in cases where the surname was fairly common (which is in England pretty common).
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 9:40 AM on October 1, 2015

It is still a common thing said amongst monied folks in the northeast! And it is definitely not limited to WASPs. I assume the original old world usage of it was to denote between the inheriting line of descent in a title and the families of younger sons but I have no citation for this other than me thinking "this seems logical".
posted by poffin boffin at 9:45 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

This definitely is a holdover from old money England! At its most delightful in Wodehouse, e.g., "Cyril Bassington-Bassington, of the Shropshire Bassington-Bassingtons"
posted by Aubergine at 9:48 AM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've always assumed it started in reference to the Social Register and its British forebears.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:56 AM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Thanks, all. It makes sense that it would go back to England, for all the reasons mentioned. I imagine pinning down an exact point of origin may be impossible, given how common it is and how subtly it is constructed. (You can't google it, for starters.) Perhaps looking at the literature on the English class system will be instructive.
posted by Cash4Lead at 10:00 AM on October 1, 2015

I would swear that the Lord of the Rings has some hobbits being referenced this way, at the points when it goes on and on about hobbit history and heredity, but I'm not finding it in a cursory search. (Not that I think that would be the origin of it.)

Personally, I live in northern New England and have never heard anyone around here say it, but I can certainly imagine upper-crust people in the Boston-NYC belt saying things like that. Sort of like the way several people I've met from the NYC area say "standing on line" instead of "standing in line" and then pointedly stare at you to see if you've noticed, which seems like it might at some point have been an imitation of Britons saying "on queue".
posted by XMLicious at 10:15 AM on October 1, 2015

I think the origin in England may at least have something to do with armigerous families. Being entitled to bear a coat of arms was socially important, and such families naturally had prominence in their local area. In heraldry records and pedigrees families were referred to, for examples, as “Petre of Swadlincote” or “Vesey of West Markton”. Thus to be a Swadlincote Petre or a West Markton Vesey was to belong to a very specific—and high standing—family. And, because grants of arms may have been made some time after a surname became fixed, the Farnington Petres and Redford Veseys were quite distinct from their Swadlincote and West Markton counterparts.
posted by Emma May Smith at 10:26 AM on October 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

It was basically the old version of browsing a Facebook friend's contact list. It's a subtle way of finding out if this particular person is likely to have heard about the time you made a fool of yourself at the local hunt ball that was attended by most of the Shropshire Wetheringhams and their cousins. If the person you talk to is one of the Hertfordshire Wetheringhams, who everyone KNOWS are estranged from the Shropshire Wetheringhams because of a falling out over a peat farm sale, then you are probably safe. (See also: Mr. Wickham finding out that Elizabeth Bennet knows Darcy, but not talking trash about Darcy until he knows for sure that the Bennets hate him.)

It is also the old version of having a high friendslist count. "Oh yes, the Yorkshire Fotheringales? I used to summer with them off the coast of [expensive place]." This also means "I am important and connected, so don't risk snubbing me and pissing off a bunch of your rich relatives/acquaintances/patrons."
posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:28 AM on October 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

The Chafee reference you cite is of course not the original, standard way this formation was used. Mother Jones just wanted to say, "Lincoln Chafee, of the long-established, prominent Rhode Island Chafee family of Chafees" and came up with an elegant allusive shorthand way of doing that.

Historically and within Social Register circles, it was usually more a way of distinguishing one family from another whether related or not. For example, "the Hyde Park Roosevelts" versus "Oyster Bay Roosevelts" — sufficiently separate and distant cousins that Franklin Delano, of the Hyde Park bunch, could marry Eleanor of the Oyster Bay clan.

When there is no need to make the distinction between several families like that, the usage generally reeks of snobbism, being used just to make sure the listener understands the subject's status.
posted by beagle at 10:47 AM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's long been a target of ridicule, too. In the first Bugs Bunny movie, Bugs identifies himself as being of the "Back Bay Bunnies". (And then clarifies it as "The Back Bay of Brooklyn.")
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:08 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Wasn't Charles Emerson Winchester of the Boston Winchesters? I remember he did one thing at a time, he did it very well, and then he moved on, but I don't recall if his family was referenced that way...
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 1:40 PM on October 1, 2015

If it helps, the phrase was used in When Harry Met Sally.
posted by mattdidthat at 2:50 PM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would also add that in present day (very WASP-y) New England, it often helps because there are like 200 last names that are shared by 60% of the population. So to say "the Eastern Connecticut Smiths" would be more precise, especially if you know like, forty different groups of Smiths. Sincerely, a descendant of some NH Smiths.
posted by SassHat at 3:01 PM on October 7, 2015

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