What's in a name...

Woons and more Woons....

As a kid growing up in Michigan, I only knew about Woon as a Cornish family name, brought over to Canada by Richard and Emily Woon in the 1840s (perhaps the Richard Woon who had emigrated to Canada by 1871 indicated here). For any potential relatives out there, I am a great-grandson of James Edwin Woon, the sixth child of Richard and Emily. My grandfather brought the name (and his family) to the US in the mid 1920s.

Somewhat later, I learned that Woon is a more common surname in Asia than it is here in the West (I've been told that Woon means "warm" in Chinese, but I've never been able to confirm it. A correspondent informed me that Woon can mean "cloud," "fortune," or "rhyme" in Korean.) The word "woon" also shows up in an Asian context in the unabridged Merriam-Webster dictionary, where it is defined to be "a governor or other administrative officer in Burma." Several people I've encountered initially on the phone or through email have told me later that they wondered if I was Asian before meeting me. Woon happens to be one of those words that's appeared independently in a number of languages and means very different things.

According to genealogical research done by a distant relative I was fortunate to meet several years ago, the Cornish variation of Woon means "downs" or "downland." The name was once Trewoon, meaning "men of the downs." Trewoon is still a place name in Cornwall, but there were a number of place names that used Woon itself: Higher Woon, Lower Woon, and so on. There is also a moor called Woon Gumpus Common that is reportedly an enchanted place of faeries. It is mentioned in the story "Nos Calan Gwaf" from Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis, though "Woon" has become "Wood."

Continuing with Cornish references: the variation chywoon or chywoone is used as a surname, place name, and name of a breed of miniature horses. The word means "house on the downs." The Cornish word "Chûn" is derived from "Chy Woone" and appears in the names of archaic sites, including Chûn Quoit and Chûn Castle.

There is a story called "Woon Gate" by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch collection The Delectable Duchy (1893).

As kids, my brother and I were tickled when we found Woonsocket, Rhode Island on a map. We always wondered if there was any connection to the family name. Thanks to the web, I learned that the name "Woonsocket" may be derived from a Native American word meaning "thundermist". (I vacationed in the Northeast in Summer 2002 and finally visited Woonsocket.)

There's also a Woonsocket in South Dakota.

By the way, there's a WOON radio station in Woonsocket at 1240 AM.

Woon is a common Dutch word as well, a conjugated form of the verb wonen, to live or reside. "Ik woon in Amsterdam" translates to "I live in Amsterdam." It's also an element of words such as woonkamer (living room) and woonplaats (residence).

In Thai cuisine, there is a bean thread salad known as yum woon sen and another dish with glass noodles called pad woon sen.

There's an annual WOON (White Object Oriented Nights) programmer's conference held in Russia.

The word woon appears in the works of Chaucer and other medieval English works.

And fond upon the coppe a woon,
That alle the men that ben on lyve

-- from THE HOUSE OF FAME by Geoffrey Chaucer

And gat him ther a newe barge anoon,
And of his contree-folk a ful gret woon,
And taketh his leve, and hoomward saileth he.

-- from THE LEGEND OF ARIADNE by Geoffrey Chaucer

The most bizarre usage of woon I've found on the web to date was in a French fantasy role-playing game, where woons were a humanoid race described as "hairy lizards with powerful jaws." Ouch. For better or worse, that link is now dead. Here's the description in the original language:

Woon : Descendant du Mologaï. Les woons sont les anthéens les plus grands de taille. Assez autoritaires, ils possédaient un vaste empire au nord de l'Héossie. Une fois intérés dans la communauté Héossienne, ils firent preuve d'un grand sens du partage en dépits de quelques actions terroristes menées par quelques factions indépendentistes.

There's even a Star Trek reference: a weapon used by Spock in the episode Amok Time was called an ahn-woon, a strip of leather used as a whip or noose in ceremonial fighting on Vulcan.

Spock wielding the ahn-woon

Then there's a Dave Barry column in which he makes fun of Americans who mispronounce Rouen as "Woon"...

In closing, here's a Garfield strip I ran across a while back:

Mrs. Woonduck???

Updated 14 December 2023