I imagine the name of C.T. Onions is familiar to many of my readers; he joined the staff of the OED in 1895 and became a full editor in 1914 (he wrote the final entry in the first edition, “zyxt obs. (Kentish) 2nd sing. ind. pres. of SEE v“), and at the end of his long life he was putting the finishing touches on the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966), published a year after his death. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to check the etymology of Onions, especially given that its bearer was perhaps the most famous English etymologist, but I just got around to looking it up (as I eventually get around to looking everything up) and discovered that it is not (as one might think) from the edible rounded bulb of Allium cepa but is one of a number of anglicized variants (Eynon, Enion, Inions, Onians, etc.) of the Welsh name Einion, which is from Latin Annianus (best known, though that isn’t saying much, as the name of an Alexandrian monk). It’s also pronounced un-EYE-unz, though as the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names informs us, UN-yunz “is appropriate for C. T. ~, philologist, grammarian and an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary; also for Oliver ~, author.” But now that I look the latter up (never having heard of him), I find that the Wikipedia article says “pronounced oh-NY-ons.” Oh dear, oh dear—I hate it when reference works disagree! (Yes, I know, it’s only Wikipedia, where anybody can write whatever they want, but why would somebody insert such an odd bit of information unless they were basing it on something?)


  1. Ian Myles Slater says

    Since you aren’t familiar with his work, you may be in for a treat: Oliver Onions’ best ghost stories are extremely good. IF you care for ghost stories, of course.
    And sometimes even if you don’t; “Phantas,” if published a few decades later, probably could have been passed off as science fiction instead. It is particularly good at juxtaposing points of view from different periods.
    A few things seemed very accurate; I decided not to wonder about the rest of it. Too many writers seemed to think that throwing in a “forsooth” or two, or confusion over who was on the throne, was sufficient to establish time-depth for a “haunting.” Onions was making a real effort. I’ve never run down any of his other writings, so I can’t comment on its relation, if any, to his historical novels.
    The Gutenberg text of “Widdershins” is a convenient source for for the Edwardian part of his ghost-story production, including “Phantas;” I’ve seen most of them, if not all, in anthologies, and it is possible that you will recognize some.

  2. I’ve interrupted an unsettling journey through “Widdershins” to provide a link, but can’t work out how to do it: “He pronounced his name “Own-EYE-ons”, but this must still have worried him, because he later changed his name to George Oliver, reportedly to spare his children any embarrassment.” [from ‘Machynthlleth and Dewi Valley People’ online. Will send URL if I can figure it out]

  3. Correction to above: “Machynthlleth and Dyfi Valley People”. I need a tutorial.

  4. I think this is the link you mean. (I googled part of your quote.)

  5. Well, that’s a relief. I was never really sure how to pronounce the surname of Richard Broxton Onians, who wrote the fantastic etymological guide to ancient popular thought, “The Origins of European Thought”.

  6. My parents nearly named me Einion!
    Just to add, ab Einion (meaning son of Einion, in the traditional Welsh manner of surnaming) also Anglicised to Bunyan and Beynon, the latter of which is still quite common in south Wales.
    Oddly enough there is also a rather beautiful Einion Valley going into the larger Dyfi Valley near Machynlleth. I wonder if Onions ever went for a walk down Cwm Einion?

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