The Origins of the Griswold Name
First, a brief summary of what's below: The "wold" part of "Griswold" is very likely an old English/Germanic word which originally could mean "forest" but came to refer to "open country". Many of the definitions also imply "upland". The "gris" part is more problematic. "Grise" means "gray" in French, and the French invaded England, so that derivation is possible. As is "grease" which is also from Norman French, though I don't know if there's any real support for that idea. "Grice" meaning "pig" (or "wild boar" if you prefer) is from Old Norse. "Gréosn" meaning "gravel" is Old English. Three languages so far, and if you throw in Dr. R. M. Griswold's German derivation, that makes four. So far this question seems undecidable to me. Dr. R. M. Griswold of Kensington, CT said he had good evidence; does anyone know what happened to his work?
This is from "Dictionary of American Family Names, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-508137-4":
English: habitational name from Griswolds Farm in Snitterfield, Warwickshire, which is probably named with Old English gréosn 'gravel' + weald 'woodland'.
The word "gréosn
" does indeed mean gravel in Old English and is probably related to "grit", though it dropped out of the language somewhere along the line. I don't know if it made it up to when last names started being used.
A similar definition is found in the "Penguin Dictionary of Surnames", 2nd ed.:
"...'gravelly/pebbly woodland' Old English; place in Warwickshire".
The following appears in "The Griswolds of Olentangy", by Rev. Edwin Viets Griswold, 1939, sent me by Mary Norton:
The use of surnames became general and imperative by the 12th
century of our era. Of necessity they were descriptive and informative, distinguishing a person by occupation, character, or habitat.
Orthoepy was not then an art, nor orthography a science, so the
family name appears in various guises, such as Greswold, Grissolde,
Gryssould; John de Greswalde appears of record in 1288; William
de Grosewold in 1349.
By the beginning of the 14th century the Griswolds, who probably came with the Teutonic invaders, were well established in
Warwickshire, heart of Anglo-Saxon England, as an ancient and
aristocratic family, with a crest and coat-of-arms. The arms are
described as "Argent, a fess Gules, in chief two greyhounds courant proper," said to be preserved in a window in the east end of
the nave of the church at Solihull.
Various members of the family are described as "of Solihull," "of
Longdon Hall", "of Malvern Hall." Distinguished clergy and lords
of the manor appear at intervals. In 1437 King Henry VI granted
custody of Solihull to a Thomas Greswold. Tradition, which usually has some fact for a basis, associates three Griswolds with
Edward I, whose favor they had won by distinguished bravery in
the Crusades, Later the King recorded that of all his dogs he was
fondest of his greyhounds from the Griswolds of Solihull.
So it appears plausible that the family name may very well have
been originally Greysweald, derived from the Icelandic grey, signifying "dog" or "greyhound," plus the common Anglo-Saxon weald,
or wold, signifying "woods." Hence the arms and crest of the
family who lived in a woods and raised the favorite kind of dogs
A note on pronunciation: before literacy became common, short "e" was commonly pronounced like short "i" (consider the word "pretty", still pronounced the old way because it's a slangy word beyond the grasp of English teachers) so "Greswold" would have sounded like "Griswold".
This comment on the origins of the Griswold name appeared in the Griswold Family Bulletin #116:
From our email queries: What is the derivation of the Griswold name?
From OUR GRISWOLD FAMILY IN ENGLAND BEFORE 1639; p.17
Research shows that family names in this area of England [Kenilworth, Solihull] were more commonly related to "place" rather than in the east of England where they were more commonly related to occupations. From PLACE NAMES OF WARWICKSHIRE, we find the following speculation: the Old English word for gravel is "Greosn." The word "Wold" meant forest or woodland. Maybe the combination of these two words is the source of the name mentioned in the earlier part of this report. The name implies that the family lived in a gravelly place in the forest of Arden.
From DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN FAMILY
"A dweller in a wood frequented by pigs." The logic of this is that the Old English word for pig is "gris." We find this suggestion less likely since as you will remember the earliest spellings for our name do not use gris.
From research of Walter Jacob Theurer, 3rd:
1) Graywood, from the Old High German gris "grey" and Angio Saxon weald "forest"
2) Pigyard, from Scandinavian gris "pig" and wold "enclosure"; and -
3) Dr. R. M. Griswold of Kensington, CT who has spent time in England in research at Kenilworth and Solihull, presents this theory: In reference to "John of Kenilworth" who seems to be the first Griswold we have authentic record of. . ."I think I found collateral evidence enough to warrant the belief that his father or grandfather came from Gottinberg or Gottingen in Thuringia, about 1200, and the old German name was Greifswald. Hence the name "Griswold" which is clearly Teutonic, indicates that the remote ancestors of the Griswold clan were among the Anglo-Saxon or Danish or Norse invaders of England, or perhaps immigrants from Germany."
So all I can tell you for sure is that we have traced the line to about 1300 and the families are still residing in Kenilworth, England. If it does originate in Germany it is indeed before this as Dr. R. M. Griswold has theorized.
From the Desk of Coralee Griswold, November 11, 1998
My comment on the foregoing: Dr. R. M. Griswold's speculation that a Greifswald came from Thuringia, which is in central Germany next to Hesse, about 1200, is not impossible but that would have been later than the Anglo-Saxon invasion which took place about 450, or the Norse/Danish invasion which took place probably about 800. As noted below, if the Greifswald hypothesis is right, Greif sounds like someone's name: Greif's wold.
I find a Roger M. Griswold in Kensington Village, CT in the 1930 census, born 1854, in the household of John R. Griswold b. 1917. He's in the same town in 1920, where it says he's a physician, 66 years old, b. NY.
Parenthetically, the Proto-Germanic word *grîsa "gray" got dropped from English, but it made it up to Middle High German as "grîs".
This comment from H. Clark Griswold appeared in the Griswold Family Bulletin #126:
I know that it has been suggested that the Griswold name derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for gravel (groes?), but I think this is wrong. I am an amateur etymologist. (Of course we all agree, I think, that "wold" originally meant "wood" or "forest.") I believe a more likely derivation for "gris" is the Nordic or Anglo-Saxon word for "pig" which is..."gris," and is cognate with our "grease." Given our best guess as to age this name, it probably referred to wild boars or pigs in the woods. Since occupations are one of the principal origins for family names (Smith, Cooper, etc), perhaps the first Griswold was a hunter of wild boar. On the other hand, it is possible that a particular wood or forest was called "Griswold" (or its earlier spelling variants) because it was known for its population of wild boar. Place names are also one of the major sources for family names. So possibly our eponym moved from this forest into a town and was so called because of where he came from. I doubt that a town in Germany called "Greifswald" would have any connection with our family name. Where would the "f" have come from? Is "Greif" German for "grief?" It would be unusual for a name to lose one of its principle consonants. So unless someone can find an old spelling for this town without the "f," I think it is very unlikely to be linked. Of course the German "wald" is identical with the English "wold," etymologically.
This comment of mine appeared in the Griswold Family Bulletin #128:
This is in response to the letter from H. Clark Griswold about the
origin of the Griswold name in GFA Bulletin #126. Though it's true that
the German name "Greifswald" has an "f" that our name lacks, I think
it's very possible that that is still the original form of it. The
Germans have a tolerance for consonant clusters like that, but I think
the English would have been more likely to simplify it before long,
especially in those semi-literate days. The German town of Greifswald,
by the way, is due north of Berlin, on the Baltic sea, and sailors do
get around; though in GFA Bulletin #116 Dr. R. M. Griswold suggests that
the Griswold progenitor "came from Gottinberg or Gottingen in Thuringia,
about 1200", and Thuringia is nowhere near the Baltic. In any case,
"Greif" is related to the English words "grip" and "grab". Another
possibility is that Greif was someone's name: Greif's wold. Another
often-mentioned possibility is that it comes from the Germanic "grice",
meaning pig (though this is not related to the word "grease", according
to Webster's New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition). A derivation
from the Old English "greasn", meaning gravel, also seems plausible to
As for the "wold", it can mean forest, field, upland area of open
country, or hilly or rolling region.
It comes from the Proto-Indo-European base *wel, meaning shaggy hair or grass. It is,
interestingly enough, unrelated to the word "wood".
location of Greifswald. (Frederick R. Griswold, B. A. in Linguistics, U. C. Berkeley)
A further comment from me: The "Gris" part may actually be French, since the French word for gray is "grise", which accounts for the "s". The name may also mean "Gray's forest."
As for "wold", in Old English it could mean forest, though in modern English it has dropped that connotation. Here's what dictionary.com says:
O.E. wald (Anglian), weald (W. Saxon) "forest, wooded upland," from P. Gmc. *walthuz.... The sense development from "forested upland" to "rolling open country" (c.1200) perhaps is from Scandinavian influence, or a testimony to the historical deforestation of Britain.
Now, to account for the change of "wald" to "wold", there was a change of long "a" to long "o"
as a normal part of English linguistic development, and this change did not happen in German; this lends support for the English derivation of the word.
This is from "A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames", by Endell:
All the GRICE names originate from the Middle English word grise or grice and from an Old Norman French word GRISS, meaning pig, or a man who took care of pigs. The -" of GRISEWOOD was probably a variation of the word ward.
If "griss" is Old Norman French, it must have been a Germanic borrowing either from Old Norse when the Vikings invaded Normandy, or from Frankish a few centuries before that. As for "wood" being derived from "ward", I have my doubts about that, but that wouldn't throw any light on the origin of "wold" anyway.
David Griswold, in a comment posted on the GFA Faceboook page 11:45am May 18 2011, says:
In the late 70's I looked up the name at college in a book on name definitions and saw..."to dwell near a dike or ditch"....
I'm not familiar with any word meaning dike or ditch that sounds like "gris"; so the name of whatever book this is in would be helpful.
Here are some excerpts from an exchange of e-mail I had with one Dirk
Schultze of Greifswald, Germany. He seems to know a good deal about
phonetics. Lines not introduced with ">" are later comments of my own.
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> Dear Fred,
> as it happened I came across your website. And although I did not find what
> I was looking for I found some mention of the town I have been living at for
> quite a while now and your family name. Now, the fact that Greifswald became
> a town in around 1250 and that it was peopled by immigrants from western
> central Germany and elsewhere during that time makes it highly unlikely that
> Griswold derives from the (modern!) name Greifswald (= gryphin's
> wood/forest). The form of the name then was commonly Grypswold (i.e. in Low
> German, a doomed dialect) or Gryphiswold/~waldensis in Latin.
The "ph" in "Gryphiswold" makes me suspect that it was pronouunced "Gryfiswold".
Also, in the 1200's, "Grypswold", with the exception of the vowels, was probably
pronounced as in modern English.
> So, anything related to "gris" ~ grey (see OED) or the likes seems a better
> Dirk, Greifswald, Germany
> Dirk -
> The earliest record in England of a Griswold seems to be from 1288, which is a
> bit after the founding of Greifswald. And I think that "Grypswold" is almost as
> likely to have been shortened to "Griswold" as "Greifswald" is. So the
> Greifswald hypothesis is still possible. On the whole, I'd still say one of the
> other ideas is more likely, since the big wave of Germanic immigration was
> earlier, though I haven't seen Dr. R. M. Griswold's evidence.
> Fred G.
> Dear Fred,
> the consonant cluster seems to be fairly stable in English. Although
> English place-names show great differences between spelling and
> pronunciation (e.g. Cirencester), a place like Ipswich doesn't. It seems far
> more likely to me that it be pronounced as [Ipsich] rather then [Iswich].
> Hence "Gripsold"/"Gripsood" rather than Griswold < Grypswald.
> You do see spellings like "Grisold" in the old censuses. Dropping w's used to be
> common in those pre-literate times, maybe universal. These days you might even
> hear a word like "talk" pronounced phonetically, in this rather distorted
> version of English we speak now. Literacy has done quite a bit of damage to the
> pronunciation of English, in my view.
This backpedaling to a more "correct" pronunciation, which started in the early-to-
mid-1800's, continues unabated today. In fact, English changed more along these
lines in the 19th century than it did in the 20th.
> Anyway, the German "Greifswald" could be
> phonetically rendered in modern English as "Grifesvalt". Now, the consonant
> clusters "fsv", "fsw", "psv", and "psw" all seem reasonably stable to me,
> between vowels, in modern English. But I still think any of them could easily
> have been smoothed over.
And unpredictable things happen when a word is borrowed from one language
to another - the normal sound laws don't apply.
> I have seen the name spelled "Grizzle" in an old land record, which implies the
> "d" was more likely to drop out than the "l".
> You seem to know a lot about phonetics. Is Grypswald pronounced "Gruepswald",
> with a front-rounded vowel?
This front-rounded vowel would be pronounced with the toungue in the front of the
mouth as in "feed", but with the lips rounded as in "food"; it's the same vowel as in
the French "tu".
> Best Regards,
> Fred G.
> Dear Fred,
> the modern standard pronunciation is - in a spelling adopted to English
> usage - [Grifesvalt] with a diphthong /ai/ in the first syllable and a
> voiceless stop for the final d, which is typical of German in general, as is
> otherwise the close relationship between the spelling and pronunciation of
> "Greifswald". Now, the place is situated in an area where Low German ('flat
> German' = Plattdeutsch is the term Low German assigns itself) used to be
> spoken, and partially still is. Low German is phonologically and in regard
> to vocabulary much closer to English than the modern standard "High" German.
> E.g. "Water" [read "vate(r)" with a long [a] as in "sma(r)t"] for High
> German "Wasser"; "Buddel" = Engl. bottle instead of High German "Flasche" in
> the same sense (cf. Engl. flask), etc.
> Hence Low German pronunciation resembles that of English before the Great
> Vowel Shift (ca. 1400-1700), which changed the English of, say, Chaucer in a
> dramatic way, i.e. raising all the long vowels and turning the already
> "highest" of them, i and u, into diphthongs ai and au (often spelled ow, ou
> etc.). Cf. "time": in Chaucer's like "teem(e)"; and "house": in Chaucer's
> like "hoos", which, as it were, is the form used in Low German still.
Dirk is talking about the Great Vowel Shift around the time of Shakespeare.
German actually went thru a similar shift about the same time or maybe a little
earlier, which is why "haus" is pronounced the same as "house".
> However, unlike Chaucer's Middle English, Low German also has a number of
> rounded vowels. These survive in Middle English only as regional variants,
> but are not in regular use. Cf. Old English "mys" [y like ee, but lips
> rounded] > Middle English "mys/mic(e)" [unrounded y/i-e like ee] > by the
> Great Vowel Shift mod. Engl. "mice" [with diphth. ai, cf. example "time"
> above]. On the other hand: OE bysig > ME busi (in West England with rounded
> vowel, hence the spelling with u) > mod. E. busy (retained Western spelling,
> but adopted northern, unrounded pronunciation as "bizi"; similar cases with
> various pronunciations in RP-pronunciation: to bury, OE myrig > merry, etc.).
> Low German - old and new - has "Grypswald" with a rounded first vowel rather
> than an unrounded one.
> Dirk -
> Yes, English shows a lasting antipathy to those front-rounded vowels. Those
> older dialects are getting wiped out now by the cities with their TV and radio
> stations. That's what's happening in England, anyway. I saw an article once by a
> guy who grew up in Wisconsin speaking a dialect of German with his family and
> friends, standard German in church, and English with everyone else. Then he went
> back to the part of Germany where his ancestors were from, and found that that
> dialect was actually better preserved in America than in Germany.
> "Buddel" sounds like it could be a borrowing. "Bottle" comes from the French
> Fred Griswold