The Milam Name

The oldest extant Milam record in Great Britain is from Norfolk County: the 1375 AD Will of George de Mileham of Norwich parish. Since there is a village named Mileham in Norfolk County, his name could simply have meant "George from Mileham". Mileham and its contractions i. e. Millam, Milam, Mylam, Millum, etc. may have meant mill hamlet or mill house in Olde English. In addition to Mileham in Norfolk County, there is the village of Millom in Cumbria County in Northwest England. And just across the English Channel is the village of Millam in the Nord-Pas de Calais region of France equidistant between Calais and Dunkirk. It has an interesting etymology available by clicking here (link) : (Translated from the French by Google)

"Interpretations abound as to the origin of the name of Millam. It was believed to be the contraction of Mildred's Ham (the place of Sainte Mildr├Ęde), or a derivative of Meullen Ham (the place of the mill)....Millam actually comes from Middel-ham: Middel meaning middle or center, and Ham being a headland that dominates the lowlands....We find this same idea in Norman towns named by the Norman conquerors."

The oldest Virginia spelling of Thomas Milam’s surname - Mylam - is found in Orange County Court Order Book 1, page 285, dated 24 March 1737/1738 which you may view here (image) . The earliest Virginia record of a Milam writing his name occured on 26 August 1760 when Thomas Milam's son, Benjamin, witnessed Thomas' land warrant and spelled his name - Millam - as you may read here (image). [446]

Benjamin Millam's Signature on Thomas' Land Warrant of 1760
Benjamin Millam Singnature 1760

The images of the spelling of the Milam name at the top of this page are from 18th century court records of Orange County, Culpeper County and Bedford County in the Colony and Dominion of Virginia. The records concern my oldest known ancestor, Thomas Mylam, and his sons. The seven spellings of Milam represent different phonetic expressions of the name’s sound written by court clerks, often the same clerk: Mylam, Mylum, Milam, Milum, Millam, Millim and Mileham. There is an eighth that I have seen: Milom. By clicking here (image), you may view a graph of the frequency of useage of "Milam", "Mileham", "Milum" and "Millam" in English language books over time. After the eighteenth century, "Milam" increasingly became the most common spelling.

Fifty years later, Bedford County Deed Book 8, pages 59 and 60, has an indenture involving Thomas’ eldest son, William, and his youngest son, Rush, containing three different spellings: most frequently Mileham but also Milam and Millam. This document is dated 7 March 1787. I found the use of the Mileham spelling quite unusual since I hadn’t previously encountered it in Bedford County where Thomas and his sons had lived since 1761. Especially so, since at the end of the document the brothers names were written: William Millam and Rush Milam. Reviewing Bedford County court records, Thomas’ surname initially was spelled Millim and Milum then rather consistently as Milam for two decades. Such was the fickleness of the court clerks if one was not of the Gentry class and couldn't spell one's own name. But it should be noted that at the time the spelling of the English language in general was not well codified.


A Brief History of American English Spelling

A brief history of English dictionaries may help put this in context. English Schoolmaster Robert Cawley’s Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604, was the first exclusively English "dictionary" but contained only 2,449 words and no definitions. The spelling of English words did not begin to become standardized until Samuel Johnson published A Dictionary of the English Language in April 1755. The first edition of his dictionary contained 42,773 words. An important innovation of Johnson's was to illustrate the meanings of words by literary quotation of which there are said to be 114,000. The authors most frequently cited by Johnson were Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden. In addition, Johnson added notes on a word's usage rather than being simply descriptive.

In an effort to remedy the confusion of English spelling, Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia in 1768 developed A Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling to simplify and regularize the spelling of English. His scheme deleted the letters c, j, q, w, x, and y, which he thought were redundant and proposed six new letters for sounds which were not uniquely represented by a single letter. This scheme found little support. Now it can be seen as part of a broader effort to establish a uniquely American culture.

In 1783 Noah Webster, an American lawyer, editor and educator, began publishing his three volume compendium, the Grammatical Institute of the English Language including The American Spelling Book - the famous "Blue-Backed Speller" - that went on to sell over 100 million copies. It reflected his principle that spelling, grammar and usage should be based on the living, spoken language. He complained that the English language had been corrupted by the British aristocracy, which had a preference for using certain French and Latin words. Over the ensuing years, he changed the spelling of words so they became "Americanized". He chose s over c in words like defense; he changed the re to er in words like center; he dropped one of the l s in traveler. For a time he kept the u in words like colour or favour but in later editions he dropped the u. For the next one hundred years, Webster's books taught children how to read, spell and pronounce words. In 1807, Webster began work on his landmark American Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1828. It contained 70,000 words. Some 12,000 had never appeared in a published dictionary before, adding American words like skunk and squash. He was seventy years of age at the time. Subsequently he led the publication of yet a second edition in 1840.

Thus toward the end of the 18th century, the spelling of our name became more or less standardized as "Milam". However, if you are a Milam, you no doubt had the experience of having your name spelled various ways especially the replacing of the i with y or the a with u. Alas, such is the sound of our name and the vagaries of the English language.

Since the spelling of the "Milam" name often varies even within a single document, I will sometimes revert to the generic "Milam" rather than using the various spellings.


NOTE TO READERS: All the words in bold type face are links to images, maps or word definitions in the Glossary.The Citations and Glossary are available under the Resources tab or here (link) .


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