Mind your language

How did Mark Reckless get his surname?

If he’s lucky, by having a carefree ancestor, rather than a careless one

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

When I first heard ‘Wonderwall’ being played in a public house, in 1995 I suppose, I thought it was some unreleased Beatles record that had been just been discovered. The song appeared on an album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, which has on the cover a picture showing two men about to pass in a very empty Berwick Street in Soho. It must have been daybreak. In the middle distance a magenta doorway indicates the location of a shop called Reckless Records. It’s a good name for a second-hand record shop. Is Reckless such a good name for an MP?

I was surprised by how many people made a little joke about Mark Reckless’s name after he defected to Ukip at the weekend. Do they think he is descended (all paternity being regular) from someone who was reckless and thus earned the name? Reckless is indeed a nickname in origin. It is not all that rare, even though an internet site specialising in genealogy claims that only 50 people in the world bear it, 23 of them living in Australia (the progeny, doubtless of reckless criminals). In reality, there are scores in Britain alone, from Peter and Patricia Reckless in Aberdovey to Gavin and Jeanette Reckless in Worthing.

The first holder of their surname might not have been rash or foolhardy, a quality generally associated in the Middle Ages, as now, with young men. He might have been careless and inattentive to his duties. Shakespeare has: ‘So flies the wreaklesse shepherd from the wolfe.’ Rather than being reckless in standing up to the wolf, the shepherd is reckless in this other sense by abandoning his sheep. Alternatively, a more positive characteristic might have attached to Mr Reckless’s eponym: the quality of being carefree, as the king at Camelot was said to be in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Until the 17th century the form of the word was usually retchless in the south of England, reckless in the north. There are almost as many Retchlesses on the electoral register as Recklesses, although their geographical distribution seems random.

Mr Reckless is lucky. He might have been called Littleboy, Sly, Smellie or Dolittle, which mean exactly what they say.

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