Recently I was reading a book by Sir Alex Ferguson, the now retired manager of Manchester United football club, in which I learned that he grew up in an area of Glasgow called Govan. This name gave me pause. I know, largely based on researching the roots of my own family, that the west and northwest of Scotland are the areas that were conquered by Irish invaders in the 6th century. Gaelic language influence is therefore concentrated in these areas of the country.
Considering the likely Gaelic roots of Govan, I made the connection to the last name of one of my favorite singers, Shane MacGowan. MacGowan was born in England to Irish parents and lived part of his childhood in Ireland, in County Tipperary. Surely Govan and Gowan come from the same root? And, assuming they do, what does it mean?
It didn’t take long to find out. As it turns out, Gowan is derived from the Gaelic word for “smith.” Examples from modern Celtic languages include ghobhainn in Scottish Gaelic, gabha in Irish and gofaint in Welsh. So, the last name MacGowan is occupational in nature (like the English last names Taylor, Smith, Hooper, etc.) and means “Son of the Smith”.
The core element of the Celtic words appears to be gab- or gob-, which correlates with the Indo-European concept of a “lump” or a “piece.” Example cognates that come to mind here are gabalas in Lithuanian and gabals in Latvian. There is even a connection with Slavic languages in that the word for “smith” begins with a kow/v– root, with kowal in Polish and kovac in Slovak being prime examples.
The Germanic language family stands in contrast to its Celtic and Slavic cousins, in that it employs a totally different root. The English word smith is closely cognate with the German Schmitt, Dutch smid, Swedish smed, etc. All of these are derived from the verb “to smite.” I find this contrast between the concepts underlying the word in each language family to be fascinating. The focus in the Celtic languages is the material that is being worked, while the Germanic word derives from the action being taken.