I’ve long been proud to be a “Wildman”. It is an excellent surname and I’m quite delighted whenever it is brought up or questioned by others. However, I’m not entirely certain as to the name’s meaning, beyond possibly originating with a person who was a man who was also wild.

This was prompted by discovering how the The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names has become accessible for free for the next week or so. I thought I would check out what interesting overview they had provided for “Wildman”, but was quite disheartened to see a very brief description:

‘English: nickname from Middle English. Wild(e) ‘wild, unrestrained, recalcitrant; wanton, perverse’

I could think of a few family members that fit the description of these words: wild (yes), unrestrained (yes), perverse (quite possibly!). But the actual entry from this Oxford Dictionary was lacking in providing any clearer detail. It pushed me to see what overviews were provided by other websites and books on the surname.

The website The House of Names states that “Wildman” is an ‘ancient Anglo-Saxon name’, further explaining:

It was a name given to a person who was a wild man. A broad and miscellaneous class of surnames, nickname surnames referred to a characteristic of the first person who used the name. They can describe the bearer’s favored style of clothing, appearance, habits, or character.

So, a tad bit more information, but nothing beyond my initial guess outlined at the very beginning of this post: a man who was wild. The website SurnameDB continues with the wild + man link:

There are a number of apparently ferocious English medieval surnames which have the prefix Wild, Wilde or Wyld. These include Wildblood, Wildbore, Wildgoose and in this case Wildman. The dictionaries of surnames all give a similar translation in effect that the name refers to a wild or untamed person, one to put it mildly, was hardly civilised! And indeed this may be so in some cases. It for instance difficult to imagine that anybody called Wildbore failed to live up to the image of a seriously fierce animal with tusks, charging through the undergrowth, and attacking anybody that came into its ground.

However, the website also points out:

Yet medieval nicknames and nicknames today are given for all manner of reasons, not the least being that in some cases at least, they mean the very opposite of what they appear to say. The problem is that unless one was present when the name was given out, it is quite impossible, seven centuries later, to give an exact meaning.

So, it could just be that the very first Wildman (if there was such a person) was given the nickname ironically: perhaps they were the very opposite of a Wildman (a mild-man, perhaps)! And so, the nickname stuck, being passed down the generations, before becoming cemented as a surname. It is not beyond the realm of logic to consider this, what with the British humour being incredibly connected to irony and sarcasm.

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Perhaps more could be gleaned from considering the synonyms attached to “wild”: barbarian, free, natural, primitive, savage, waste. It could have been that the early Wildmans were seen as barbaric and primitive, or maybe there were beyond the normal laws for a particular village or town. Perhaps they lived beyond the town walls and didn’t pay taxes (or other tithes), and therefore were free and natural.

I remember reading (a few years ago now) between the link of “wild” and “strange”. Strange in this sense meaning different and apart, rather than simply weird. This links in with the idea that the early Wildmans were apart from the rest of a society. Furthermore, there is another link between “wild” and “strange” that connects to Slavic roots from eastern Europe: “dik” and “div” combine the meaning of “wild” and “amazing…strange.”

The Wikipedia article on “Wild Man” provides an overview of different elements of characters of European mythology, of creatures that live in the woods and are barbaric. Eastern European Slavic descriptions of the “Wild Man” include:

a short man with a big beard and tail… old men with overgrown hair who give silver to those who rub their nose… unclean spirit…an attractive woman, sacrifices children and drinks their blood, seduces men… one-eyed cannibals living overseas, also drink lamb blood… they have a long tail and ears like an ox; they do not speak, but only squeal.

Blimey – quite a long list of interesting characteristics! But it is unlikely that the British “Wildman” is connected to these ancient myths and stories. Similarly, it is possibly unlikely that the claim made from the Dictionary of American Family Names is accurate. It notes that the Germanic “Wildmann” was a ‘from a short form of the Germanic personal name Wilto’ combined with ‘man’. This may be true of some American Wildmans that trace their ancestry back to Germany, but this cannot be said to be the same for British Wildmans. There is plenty of evidence of Wildmans in England stretching back to the Anglo-Saxon period.

The surname itself can be traced back throughout the centuries. The Wildman family tree that I have utilised on Ancestry tracks my ancestors back to the Tudor age in the 1500s in the county of Bedfordshire. However, it can be found in documents earlier than the 16th century. The House of Names notes that the surname can be found in Berkshire, with the lords of the manor of Beaucot (both before and after the Norman Conquest of 1066). Perhaps it could be that modern day Wildmans originate from this family, or originate from people who were tenants from this manor. Furthermore, others can be found in subsequent centuries, including a John Wildeman (who lived during the reign of King Richard II in the late 1300s) and a Willelmus Wyldman listed in the Yorkshire Poll Tax Rolls of 1379.

Interestingly, the counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire are where – traditionally – most Wildmans could be found. So, perhaps the origins stretch to this region of the kingdom. However, ultimately, it is unlikely that any evidence can be found that will definitively provide a clear answer to how the surname “Wildman” came to be. But such a conclusion doesn’t prevent me from reading into interesting alternatives.