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The Fay Family: The Fay Name and Crest

An Essay by Linda Fay Kaufman
see also
The Normans & the French-Irish, and French-English Connection by Robert Fay
Discussion of Various Fay Family Crests
"Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose"
Gertrude Stein, Sacred Emily
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Line 43, Act II, Sc. 2.
Where did the name 'FAY' come from and what is its relationship to other similar names (a few of which are written above)? Most of us wonder about this from time to time. It is not, I suspect, a question that can ever be answered with any degree of certainty, unless of course we happen to find an inscription somewhere of the 'Kilroy was here' type:
"I Fay of Fay do claim this name into perpetuity.
[year] 790"
[Note that he seems to have become somewhat lazy in his writing of the sixth letter of the inscription, and consider the root 'fagus' below. It looks to me as if he started to write "Fagus" rather than "Fayus" but then realized that his descendants might have a harder time writing the "g" than a simple "y"? Or maybe the weather just erased what was an earlier "g"? I am afraid we will never know.. unless, of course, we find a similar stone elsewhere.]
Orlin P. Fay opens his book with a discussion of the Fay family name and its source, which, I believe, he attributes to John J. Fay's "pamphlet entitled Fay, its origin and escutcheon". Orlin mentions theories that it comes from a Homeric name given to the centaurs or from 'nympha' meaning 'fairy.' Ousely takes it from Hebrew, whereas Herbelot takes it from Persian. Orlin also refers to a possible Latin derivation: "fata, to enchant; in the French it became according to the analogy of that language faer, feer. Of this verb, the past participle is fae, fe; hence in romance we read of les chevaliers faes les dames faees." John J. (whose pamphlet I have not seen) seems to favor the 'fairy' derivation.

Orlin also mentions other spellings, citing Phay from New England, Foy (using the Rev. John Foy as authority), and Mr. D. (Fay) Walker's theory that the people who originally came here changed their name from Foy to Fay.

Morse (the Rev. Abner Morse, who was employed to collect the material before Orlin) "claims that since 1173 the name has been written Fay and Foy names supposed to be identical and both common in England and the latter in France". And Morse/Orlin refers briefly to derivation from a place in a passage the meaning of which is not perfectly clear to me: "if the name was local, such is the only origin gathered from Doomsday Book, and the treaties letters and acts of the English government prior to 1344 when surnames had got into general use and their orthography had been comparatively settled," as opposed to other possibilites, in which case "the field is open to any of more curiosity and leisure, of the root and original meaning of the name no investigation has been attempted." John J. likes the idea of a French origin, calling it "plausible".

Thomas Spooner refers to the possibility that the name, and the family, are of Huguenot origin. We will return to this idea a bit later.
James M. G. Fay, writing The Fay Family Papers, discusses the origin of the family in several places. The full document is online in images; and I have prepared a relatively detailed summary and selection from those as pertains to the name itself: The Fay Family Papers: Summary.

Three things should be noted in particular:

1) I myself cannot always tell when James is presenting a serious opinion and when he is writing satire. I take some of what he writes with a lot of skepticism and I give some of my reasons on the summary page.

2) Unless one interpret the following as satire, James appears to have definite prejudices which do not appeal to me personally at all. He writes, "some Fahy; Fahey, etc., have changed their name to Fay to anglicize their family, ashamed of their race, they showed a gross ignorance because there is no such family name of English origin. The name Fay is Oc and of no other language. D In Bennington, Vermont, the son of an Irish laborer took the name Fay legally. He lives and has not a drop of Fay blood." This bias may possibly color some of his other material.

3) James sets forth the theory that "Fay" is derived from the Latin word 'fagus' meaning "beech." He does not discuss alternatives, nor does he 'argue' for this derivation. But he does present it very well.

4) James includes a great deal of information in his categories on the names of villages and towns, geographical holdings and history. Only a very small amount of this is presented in my summary.

This seems an appropriate place to discuss the origin of surnames, and names in general. Orlin sets 1344 as a separation point for the general use of surnames in England. "Surnames," or family names, do actually go back a good deal further. The following passage is taken verbatim from page 596, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon, 1949, rep. 1961:
"Names. The Greeks distinguished two types of proper names: (1) [theophora onomata], names etymologically connected with the name of a god, e.g. Apollonius..; (2) [athea], names etymologically connected with magisterial or professional titles, with virtues, qualities moral or physical, omens, etc., and with names of places (e.g. [Lakedaimonios]). Since it was customary to give a child one name only (the firstborn son bore the name of his paternal or, less frequently, maternal grandfather), men's names at Athens were generally followed by that of their father (in the genitive), and of their deme (q.v.). Romans of the regal and early Republican period probably bore two names, as can be seen from the list of kings and other evidence. But by c. 300 B.C., the custom prevailed in the highest order of society of bearing three names, the praenomen, nomen or name of the gens, and the cognomen or family name (e.g. 'Marcus Tullius Cicero'). �.Greek and Roman women and slaves regularly bore but one name, followed, if necessary, by that of the person (father, husband, master, etc.) on whom they legally depended."
As we explore the theories about the origin of the name "FAY", it is worthwhile here to consider another question, the one actually with which this essay began: what is the relationship between all the various spellings one finds? This open question has produced interesting discussions among researchers, for example the conversation between Andrew Merkel and David Foy, which seems to have begun as a competition and ended as a cooperative "foyage" (Drew's word). Much of this dialogue (in the Socratic sense of the word) can be read in its original form HERE, and all of it can be read if one traces the various hyperlink threads, but certain points will be summarized as we go.

Linguistic similarities, as well as similarities in pronunciation, form the foundations of the conclusion expressed by Hans-J�rgen FEY, writing from Germany. After citing, among other things, religious differences, differences in dialects, lack of codification of the spelling, and normal variations in handwriting to explain why we find all these various spellings of this surname, he concludes that they go back "to one single surname" (see his letter of March 26). He points to the identical pronunciation of several of our variants [slightly edited translation]: "You certainly know that the pronunciation of Fey, Vey, Vay and Fay is identical. Fei and Vei are pronounced in the same way." The form with dots or lines, "�", can easily be interpreted as a variant for a simple "y." In earlier times, a "y" was frequently used in place of today's "i". The letters "V" and "F" are often interchanged. One often sees this in old documents or in inscriptions. (Those who wish may read the German original correspondence.)

"What gives me pause, however, is the wide diffusion of this name over the whole of Europe. Fey demonstrably shows up in France. In England, the version 'Fay' seems to be common. I know of Fey in distant areas of Switzerland. In Germany, there are regional differences in the diffusion of the name," and he mentions variations such as Feyhe, Feydt, Feyd and Feyhen.
Just how widespread is this surname and its variants? And what evidence do we have for its extension? And what connection does this have with the meaning and source of the name?

Patrick Jouann�s, in an interesting short page called The French Surname Faye in France posits the derivation of 'Faye' from the Latin fagus, and has a very plausible sketch of the change from the Latin fagus to faga to faye: "Then the internal G of FAGA underwent a first celtic linguistic phenomenon of muteness FA(g)A exactly like in the english word EYE that was written EAGA in old saxon once Saxons invaded the celtic british isles.

"Then the final A of FA(g)A underwent a second phenomenon of muteness FA(g)(a) exactly once more like in the english word EYE.

"In the Middle Age when the first french words were recorded and written this FA(g)(a) had become the equivalent of FAYE. The parallelism with the history and the pronunciation of the english word EYE is really striking."

I checked a couple of linguistic sources, and it is very true that 'eye' has gone through a similar change. Note that 'eye' is 'auge' in German, in Norwegian it is "�ye" and in Danish "�je" -- the G shows up in German but changes to Y and to J in different languages. I find this VERY convincing.
Fagus sylvatica - Beech Irish Fea [Italian faggio]
Family - Fagaceae
Magnificent, large, deciduous tree. Important economic forestry tree. Height: Max 40m.
Age: mature at 120 years
Chalky soils and limestone but tolerant of a wide range of soils and conditions. Up to 300m
Natural Distribution
Southern England to Gloucestershire and a few localities in South Wales. Not native to Ireland. Found throughout most of Europe except Spain, Former USSR, Norway and Sweden.
Lewis and Short, Latin Dictionary, under the word 'fagus, fagi, f.':
[Greek] f�gus, i (nom. plur.: fag�s, Verg. Cul. 139), f. [prob. root phag-, to eat; cf. faba and Gr. ph�gos, ph�g�n; Germ. Buche; Engl. beech, originally a tree with edible fruit], = ph�gos, a beech-tree: Fagus silvatica, Linn.; Verg. E. 1.1; Caes. B. G. 5.12.5; Plin. 16, 5, 6, � 16 sq.; 24, 5, 9, � 14; Ov. M. 10.92: felices arbores ... quercus, fagus, etc., Veran. ap. Macr. S. 3, 20, 2 al.
Jouann�s has created a distribution map for 'Faye' which I have combined with occurrences of "Fay" and "Fey" in place names in France.

Writing from Switzerland, Charles Montandon has a long list of different forms of this surname that he traces back to 'fagus':

"du Fay, du Fay de Lavallaz - Patronyme chablaisien compos� du lieu-dit Grand-Fay (grand h�tre), � Troistorrents (VS), et de la seigneurie de La Valla (la vall�e), pr�s d�Evian. Le latin fagus, h�tre, fayard, a laiss� encore Fayard, Fayon, Fayant, Faye, Fayet, Fayot, Fayod et sa branche Fayod-Desmeules, Fayolle, Fay et Fey (deux lieux-dits). Les noms Fogoz et Fogal peuvent venir aussi du latin focus, focalis, foyer. (15.2.98)

Fayet - Diminutif du vieux fran�ais fai, h�tre, arbre appel� fayard ou foyard en franco-proven�al (du latin fagus), par un lieu-dit comme Fayet, village savoyard. Autres formes : Fay, Fayard, Fayod, Fayot, F�, Fey (aussi village vaudois). Fogoz peut venir �galement du latin focus, foyer, et Faye du patois f�ye, brebis (latin feta). (10.10.93)" (Patronymes en F)
From Le dictionnaire des noms:

FA-FE: Faye -- Nom tr�s fr�quent dans le Limousin, c'est un toponyme d�signant un bois de h�tres (latin fagus > fagea).

Fayolle -- Surtout proven�al, le nom d�signe un lieu plant� de h�tres.
And from the 17th century comes Gilles Andr� de la Roque, sieur de La Lonti�re, who writes in connection with the blazon of the Fay family:

"Le nom de du Fay vient de fagus qui est un arbre qu'aucuns appellent Fau ou Fausteau et dont se peut composer la croix et pareillement les couronnes ... et la croix qui est l'instrument du supplice et de la mort est prise pour l'�peron et la molette puis que Saint Paul �crivant au peuple de Corinthe parle en ces termes - Ubi est mors stimulus". (Memoire & Documents, Le trait� de la Noblesse)
I myself am convinced that the name 'Fay' at least is derived from the Latin word for 'beech.' Whether the family gave its name to the places in France where it seems to have originated or whether it took its name from the place names which in turn took theirs from the tree, I do not know; the naming could have gone in either direction, or indeed, in both directions. Perhaps there was a particularly significant beech grove which gave its name to the first of the family to be named (so that he might, for example, be 'the John of the beech grove,' and then as he, or his descendants travelled, the name might have been attached to those places where they stayed.
But as convincing as I find the above information, it does not convince everyone. There is another theory which has received a significant amount of support from various people. David Foy and Andrew Merkel mention it briefly, and it has been set forth quite persuasively by Hans-J�rgen Fey. This theory argues that the name Fey or Fay represents a shortening of the name Sophia (Sofia).
The Life of Saint Sophia
"Sophia, whose name means wisdom, deliberately named her three daughters Faith, Hope and Love. St. Sophia was a devout Christian who lived during a time of great persecution under the Roman Emperor Hadrian. She had been widowed shortly after the birth of her third daughter. With her three children, she was brought before the magistrate and ordered to renounce Christ and offer incense to the pagan deity Artemis. If she refused, she was told, she would be forced to watch her three young daughters die a horrible death. Imagine the anguish this mother must have gone through! Yet she summoned the courage to remain faithful to Christ and encouraged her daughters, aged twelve, ten, and nine, to endure, saying, "Your heavenly Lover, Jesus Christ, is eternal Health, inexpressible Beauty and Life eternal. When your bodies are slain by torture, He will clothe you in incorruption, and the wounds on your bodies will shine in heaven like the stars." The three little girls bravely suffered tortures and finally martyrdom. God in His great mercy granted their mother Sophia to fall asleep in Him three days later to be reunited with her precious daughters in His Kingdom."
This is a rather 'popular' presentation of Sophia. A different viewpoint of the origin of Saint Sophia is given by Dr. Quenten Quesnell, "In Search of Sophia". But Quesnell's lecture is scholarly and takes the reader back to the origin of the [mythical] universe; and we are, after all, talking about the vernacular use of the word/concept/saint.

From David Foy, 7/12/2000:
"According to a web page I just found ( Formerly used First Names or diminutives of First Names [also here, with the rest of the contributor's genealogical information here. The problem with this source is that it does not give dates for this list.] ) Fe�, along with Ficken and F�cken, are diminuitive or familiar forms of the female name Sofia or Sophia in the area around Aachen, at the western French/German border. "Sophia" derives from early words meaning Wisdom.

"Yet we have all heard that the origin of the French name "Foy" derives from the Latin word "Fides," or Faith....

"This is from the Catholic Online Saints page
The Roman widow, St. Wisdom, and her three daughters are said to have suffered for the Faith under the Emperor Hadrian. According to spurious legend, St. Faith, age 12, was scourged, thrown into boiling pitch, taken out alive, and beheaded; St. Hope, age 10, and St. Charity, age 9, being unhurt in a furnace, were also beheaded; and their mother, St. Wisdom, suffered while praying over the bodies of her children. There is reference to two groups; a family martyred under Hadrian and buried on the Aurelian Way, where their tomb under the church of St. Pancras was afterward resorted to; their names were Greek, Sophia, Pistis, Elpis and Agape; and another group of martyrs of an unknown date, Sapientia, Fides. Spes and Caritas, buried in the cemetery of St. Callistus on the Appian Way. The Roman Martyrology names Faith, Hope, and Charity on August 1, and their mother (of whose martyrdom it says nothing) on September 30th. The great church of St. Sophia at Constantinople has nothing to do with this saint or with any other of her name; it is dedicated in honor of the Holy Wisdom, that is, to Christ as the Word of God.
end quote"

The Catholic Encyclopedia: Sts. Faith, Hope & Charity contains a much more complete discussion of these saints.
As with so many of these things, the dates are not certain; we may be dealing with Hadrian or Diocletian or some other early period (1st to third centuries A.D.). However, the worship of Saint Sophia did continue during the early centuries, and in 778, the Bishop of Strassburg had relics from Sophia carried from Rome to a cloister in Alsace (Band X (1995) Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon, Spalte 807-808).

As Hans-J�rgen points out, Strassburg lies in an area including Alsace-Lorraine where the Fey name is very common. This area has also changed back and forth between France and Germany. And it is obvious, as Hans-J�rgen says, that "in any case, the name Fey has a long history and indisputably stems from the Middle Ages." We have references to historical figures from as early as the 10th century (see, for example, DE FAŸ plus tard CHAPTEUIL)

G�n�ralit�s sur l'histoire des noms de famille has some interesting information on the origin and source of surnames in general, attributing the appearance of a second name to the 12th century.

The origin of the name in the worship of Saint Sophia is accepted by Hans Bahlow in his Deutsches Namens-Lexikon, a work published in the thirties.

"Fey, Feye(n): im MA. beliebte KF zu Sophie, als M�rtyrin und Heilige verehrt (Bahlow, Vornamen, S. 93). Vgl. "dy scone Feyge" ebd.; Fye mehrfach um 1300 in Wetzlar, 1363 Vey. In Oldbg. 1457 Cord Fyeken (Metronym)."

Hans-J�rgen points out that Bahlow's work was written in the thirties, a time when it is unlikely a folk saint would be used to explain a German name unless it were clearly defensible. On the other hand, even if we accept that Bahlow believed this derivation, it is not necessary for us to accept Bahlow's judgment in this case.