Thursday, November 4, 2010

What's in a Name?

Ever since grade school I've been teased to a greater or lesser degree about my last name. When people ask how to spell it, my Dad likes to tell them, "Crook, just like a politician" or "Crook, just like Nixon". And I have jokingly considered the possibility of finding someone with the last name Connor to start a law firm with me (we would be 'Crook and Connor, Attorneys at Law').

Anyway, turns out it's a bad rap. Before the late 1870s no one ever used the word crook to mean "thief" or "robber" [1] (which is, I believe, before my Crook ancestors came West as pioneers). As such, that particular usage of the word crook began as slang in Chicago and has slowly spread to the rest of the English-speaking world.[2] Even so, the origins of the last name Crook [3] aren't entirely clear. Here are some of the possibilities I've been able to uncover.

1. The most common theory is that Crook is an occupational last name (or metonym) given to a shepherd. This generally refers to a shepherd's crook, but (though less likely) can also mean a bishop's crook, or crosier.[4]

2. Alternatively, Crook could be an occupational last name (or metonym) given to a messenger or courier (or, alternately, to a tale-bearer or gossip). The Norse god Odin had two ravens, named Huginn and Muninn, who were his messengers. The last name Crook could come from one or more of the ancient words for raven.[5]

3. The last occupational possibility stems from the fact that in Old Norse the word for "crook", "bend", and "hook" is krókr. Thus Crook could be a maker and seller of hooks.[6] This included a type of barbed spear, so it could mean spearman.[7]

4. Crook could be a surname given to a crooked person (i.e. they walked or dressed funny), a trickster (i.e. they were sly and devious), or to a physically deformed person (i.e. a hunchback).[8]

5. The Welsh word cruc and the Irish word cruaich both mean "a crag, hill, or burial mound".[9] Thus the last name Crook could literally mean hillbilly.

6. Last, the surname Crook could refer to a person who lived in the crook or bend of a river.[10]

So there you have it.


[1] I have previously told people that there was a family of Crooks who were involved in a notorious criminal organization at this time and that for this reason the word crook became synonymous with thief. But I can no longer find my original source for that idea (though it was possibly here), so I can't be sure how true it is.

[2] See The Oxford English Dictionary (hereafter OED), Second Edition (1989), crook n def. 13.

[3] It appears in Belgian and French records as Croocq, de Croocq, le Crok, Croq, le Croque, le Cruk, etc. There is a possibility that the last name means "from Crocq, France" via the Normans.
      It appears in Danish records as Croocq, de Croocq, Decrocq, etc. The Danish spelling was first brought to my attention by the novel Shōgun.
      It appears in English records as Craics, Croc, de Croc, Croch, Croche, Crocus, Crok, Croke, Crokes, de Crokis, Croocx, Crook, Crooke, Crookes, Crooks, Cruak, Cruik, Cruikis, Cruiks, Cruix, Cruk, de Cruk, Cruke, Crukes, Cruoc, Krok, and Krook. There is a possibility that the last name means someone from one of the many towns named Crook or Crookes in England.
      It appears in Irish records as Croake, Croc, Cróc, Crok, Croke, Crooke, Crooks, Cruc, and Crúc.
      It appears in Scottish records as Craiks, Croak, Croc, Croche, Crok, Croke, Crook, Crooks, Cruicks, Cruik, Cruikis, Cruiks, Cruk, Crukes, Crukis, Cruix, Crwkes, Kruckes, Krwckes, and Krwcks.
      Derived from here, here, here, here, and here (.pdf).

[4] See OED, Second Edition (1989), crook n def. A.4.a. and b.

[5] Compare:
      Middle English crouk, "a crow", crake, "a raven", rok(e) "a rook";
      Old English: hrōc, "a rook";
      Old High German hruoh, "a rook";
      Old Norse kráka, "a raven", hrōkr, "a rook";
      Icelandic kraki, "a crow", krakr, "raven";
      Dutch kraeyen, "to caw or croak", kraye, "a crow";
      Greek korax "raven";
      Old Church Slavonic kruku "raven";
      Lithuanian kraukti, "to croak", krauklys, "a crow".
      Derived from here, here, here, here, and here.
      Also of interest is the roc (Arabic rukhkh; Persian rukh), a mythological predatory bird.

[6], and Hanks P (ed). 2003. Dictionary of American Family Names. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195081374. Also, see here.

[7] See OED, Second Edition (1989), crook n def. A.3.

[8] loc. cit. See also OED, Second Edition (1989), crook n def. A.12. and crook-back n def. 2. Also, see here and here.

[9] Compare:
      English crag "[jagged] rock";
      Irish creag "rock", carraig "rock";
      Old Irish crec "rock", carrac "cliff", cruach "pile, heap";
      Welsh craig "rock, "stone", careg "rock", crug "pile, heap";
      Old Welsh carrecc "rock";
      Cornish cruc "pile, heap";
      Breton cruc "pile, heap", karrek "rock";
      Norse krúga, "heap".
      Derived from here, here, and here.

[10] loc. cit. See also OED, Second Edition (1989), crook n def. A.11.

Image attributions:

Crag is by Jim Moran, available at
Crosier is by Frederick Noronha, available at
River bend is by Iain Simmons, available at

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