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Origin of the Name "Barney"

by William D. Barney
Fort Worth, Texas

BFHA Member William D. Barney, 2325 Westbrook, Fort Worth, TX 76111 researched the meaning of our name for a presentation he gave at the Barney Reunion in Taunton, Mass. in 1983. He then summarized his findings in an article which was published in the September 1983 issue of the BFN.

Most researchers agree that the name BARNEY came from the small town of Berney (pronounced "Barney," and usually spelled Barney today) in Norfolk Co., England. The Domesday Book calls this town Berlie, said to mean "a hill by the water." Many have said the name is Norman, possibly derived from the Norse BJARNE, meaning "Bear." We would like to embrace this idea of thinking our name represents such a stalwart and courageous animal. But it probably cannot be proven. I can't prove it either, but I had fun with the bears!

The American Heritage Dictionary has a long list of roots of Indo-European words; linguists comparing various Western languages have arrived at "Indo-European" as a sort of proto-language, the source of words of similar meaning and sound (obeying certain phonetic changes) in many languages. One of these roots is BHER, meaning "Bright" or "Brown." In Old English it became BRUN -- "Brown;" in Old German, BHRUNO; in Old French, BRUN, from which we get BURNET, BRUNETTE, and BURNISH. A reduplicated form BHIBHRU-BHEBRU -- "the brown animal," is "Beaver" in the Germanic word BEBRUZ. Then Germanic BERO -- "the brown animal," or "Bear." Old High German BERO -- "Bear." Old Norse BJORN -- "Bear." Lithuanian BERAS -- "brown," "the brown animal."

I searched all the books I could find on the origin of surnames, and there are some fascinating theories on the origin of BARNEY. Here are a few:

BARNEY: A pet name from BERNARD and supposedly Irish. But in These Names of Ours by August Dellquest, "BERNARD is a personal name that occurs in England long before the Conquest. It was originally BEORNHEARD, from Norse BIORN ("Bear") and ARD ("having the nature of.") It was a name bestowed in Saxon England in the hope that a child would grow up with the courage and bravery of a bear. BERNARD means "Bear-Brave," says the Penguin Dictionary of Surnames. The American Heritage Dictionary says BERNARD comes from Norman French BERNARD, from German BERNHARD, from Old High German BERO ("Bear") plus HARTI ("stern or bold.") St. Bernard himself was a Frenchman. In The Surnames of Ireland by MacLysacht, there are no Barneys, but BARNARD is declared a variant of BERNARD, meaning "Bear-Brave." MacBURNEY, BURNEY, MacBIORNA are Scottish names of Norse origin, now numerous in Northeast Ulster of Northern Ireland.

Some say BARNEY comes from BARNABY. In Surnames Are Fossils of Speech by Samuel L. Brown, BARNABY derives from BARNABY, a place in Yorkshire, which comes from BAJARNI-BYR, meaning "Homestead of Bjarni," an old Norse personal name meaning "Bear." Not much doubt what BJORN means today among Swedish tennis stars! Surnames also suggests that the surname BARNES comes from BJARNIS -- "son of Bjarni."

Last summer my wife and I visited in BERNE, Switzerland, where we saw the famous bear pit and heard how the city supposedly got its name. Berthold V decided to build a city on the River Aare; out hunting, he told his followers he would name the city after the first animal he killed. It was a bear. The city was established in 1191. Its earliest known seal, 1224, shows a bear, and its Coat of Arms today does also. (Question: Was the final "e" of Berne ever pronounced?)

The Old English name BERNERS identified houndsmen who stood ready with fresh packs of dogs for the chase. One source says BERNERS were keepers of a BERNE, or "Bear." Another Old English word, used only in poetry, is BERNE (variants BIORN, BEARN, BAIRN, etc.) means "Warrior," or "Man of Valor." It is said to correspond exactly to Old Norse BJORN, the genitive of which, BJARNER, means "Bear." How was this BERNE pronounced? Was the "ER" pronounced like "AR"? Was the last "E" pronounced, as was common to Old English.

[Editor: The English name "Berney" of Norfolk County was/is pronounced as if it were spelled "Barney." Signs and road-map entries to the town of Berney are spelled both ways nowadays. Other examples of this English pronunciation of "er" are "Clerk" -- pronounced "Clark," and "Vermin" -- pronounced "Varmin," and from which we get our word "Varmint."]

In the Penguin Dictionary of Surnames the name BARNES is said to derive from "Barns" which were "Barley Houses." It also says BARNES may come from a word for "Child" or "Young Knight," from an Old Norse word meaning "Warrior." Or from a French word meaning the same. Or from an Old Norse word meaning "Bear." Or from a Latin word meaning "Barn." The American Heritage Dictionary says BARN is from the Middle English BERN, from the Old English BERN, BEREN, from BARLEY plus ERN -- "a place or house." The Penguin Dictionary of Surnames says BARNEY comes from BARLEY -- "Barn Island," an Old English place in Norfolk.

One more? Personal Family Names by Long, says BARNEY refers to the "Descendants of BARNEY," a pet form of BARNABAS -- "son of prophecy." If you feel real pious, you can use this!

Draw your own conclusions. It seems to me that whether BARNEY comes from Old Norse BJARNI, meaning "Bear," or French BERNEY, there is a bear lurking somewhere in the background. And if you do not agree with this, I remind you of still another Old Norse word, BERSERKER. The original Viking BERSERKER fought with unimaginable fury and violence, wearing a bearskin shirt (BERSEKR, from BJORN, stem BER- ("Bear") plus SERKR ("Shirt.") It just may be that some of us Barneys are slightly mad.

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