What’s In a Name?

Over the years (that is, since the advent of internet genealogy) one topic I’ve seen a lot on discussion boards questions the origin of the surname “Loy.”

As a Linguistics major, I can honestly say that there is no one single answer. The surname is like the proverbial elephant being described by the blind men. The sound that comes out, when we say (as we spell it) “Loy” can mean many things in many languages, including Chinese and Thai. When actress Myrna Williams wanted a more exotic name for her film career, she chose the surname “Loy” because it was Chinese and she had been playing Chinese film characters. I guess it was just as well.  After all, had she chosen the name for being German, I doubt she would’ve been as popular as she was during the WWII years among those fighting Germany. 😛

So, rather than a “one-size-fits-all” answer, the name origin question must be narrowed down to the Loys who came from Germany. And I use “Germany” rather loosely, as in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th century, the area that is now Germany consisted of several states within Prussia, which had been part of the Holy Roman Empire.  At one time, Austria was also included.  During the 18th century, the British monarchy assisted many German-speaking emigrants (i.e., Protestant Huguenots) in exchange for helping to populate British colonies, such as in the New World (now the U.S. and Canada) as well as strengthen the Protestant population in Northern Ireland. Some of those emigrating stayed in England, instead of continuing on. So what I call “German Loys” pertains also to those of Great Britain’s territories.

In 1949 a descendant of Matthias Loy (to America 1733), George Tressler Scott, published a 73-page book on the families of Scott’s grandparents John and Elizabeth (Loy) Tressler. (This was an expanded edition from an earlier, 1945 manuscript he had passed out to family members.) In this book, Scott relates how the name Loy “in France was probably Luys or Luis and took the spelling Ley in Germany.” My take on this is that neither are true French. The only reference I can find for “Luys” online says it’s an Armenian word. However, the letter “y” in Spanish is called (in Spanish) “Greek (letter) I.”  So, if you substituted the “y” for an “i,” then it would be pronounced the same as the Spanish Luis. French does not have the spelling “Luis.” It would be “Louis.” Which is possible for an origin of “Loy,” since “Louis” would be pronounced “Lu-wee.”  And Loÿ with the umlaut over y would be very close to sounding like “Louis.” Just that the tongue for the “u” is a little further back in the mouth, like a cross between a “u” and “o.”

Considering how similar the French “Louis” and German “Loÿ” sound, and that ÿ is not a natural letter in German (and y isn’t used at all as final letter of a word, unless it has umlaut, indicating a foreign loan-word**), I would say this was the original in each language. Some researchers have said the name was originally “Lay,” “Laye,” “Leey,” and other variants in Germany. But from what I’ve seen, these have been taken from transcribed records, such as Rupp’s book of German immigrants — where not only do the transcribers have difficulty reading antiquated handwriting, but that the person recording the ship roster only spoke English and probably didn’t win any English spelling bees at that.

To illustrate, have you ever been at a “Megabucks” to buy coffee and told the barista your name? Even if it’s a simple first name, I’ll bet it’s come out mangled at least once. Especially if the barista is not a native English speaker. Even “Jane” might come out as “Chain.” Or something like that. When it happens to us, we might laugh it off. After all, we just want to get our coffee and go. Who cares about the spelling. Well, same with those ship passengers. They might have been asked their names, and for those that could read, might have even seen the name being written wrong. But with language barrier, it would have been hard to correct anyway. And they didn’t care as long as they could get to where they wanted to go.

To show how “Loy” (or “Loÿ”) was still used in Germany as well as the U.S., follow the emigration of Matthias Loy (to America 1817). The image of his ship passenger list entry (as well as that of Johann Loy, who came on same ship) could be interpreted as either “Loy” or “Lay,” due to way list writer wrote. However, the database index transcribes this as “Lay.” When Matthias arrived in America, the German church records for him and his family listed them with surname Loÿ. His son Matthias [Jr.] wrote an autobiography, in which he always uses the surname Loy. He never says the family surname changed at any time. The ÿ was obviously dropped, since English typesetting had no ÿ and when you told a non-German the spelling of your name, it would’ve been quicker to just use y instead of explaining what ÿ was.

In Martin Loy’s (to America 1741) family, all his sons have been recorded in U.S. with their own signature or by being mentioned in period newspapers with spelling “Loÿ” or “Loy.” (Had the family surname “changed” to Loÿ/y, it’s not likely all three would have changed at same time. For me, this is proof the spelling was the same in Germany.) However, some of Martin’s son John’s son George’s descendants in Alamance Co., NC started spelling the name as “Loye” in late 1890s, to distinguish themselves from distant cousins living in that area with same name, especially those named John Loy. Rather than being further from the original German, they are actually just as close. If you slightly pronounce that “e,” it does come close to pronunciation of Loÿ.

So now, if George Tressler Scott was correct, and the name was originally “Louis” (pronounced “Lu-wee”) in French, we have our answer as to the name’s origin. But not in France. According to Wikipedia, “Louis” means “famous warrior” or “famous in battle” in the original language it derived from. Just as “Loÿ” is a loan-word from French, “Louis” is likewise not of French origin, but a loan-word from the Old Frankish “hlod wig,” also the predecessor of the modern German name “Ludwig” (pronounced “Ludvick”). Old Frankish was a West Germanic language.

Ping-pong!! Loys back in Germany! 😛

**[Edit: I just remembered, about the last quarter of the 20th century, some final y words without the umlaut have appeared in German. All foreign loan-words, mainly English, such as “Hobby” (meaning hobby) and “Handy” (meaning cell phone). Unlike English, where plurals are made changing y to i and adding -es, these “German” words are plurals just by adding -s.]

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