The Secret Origins of the Name “Dunebat”

 

As the sole member of Desmodus desertus known to human science, it occurred to me that I might have an obligation to tell you more about myself. I figured I’d start with my name, as names are important things that tell you much about the person, place, or thing so named.

While Dunebat is the common name of my particular species of Desmodus, it serves as such because I bear the name; I’m what you call the type specimen, so my species is named after me, and my batty little nom de plume actually has a bit of interesting history to it.

Well, not the Dune part. That bit’s easy to relate: I hail from the arid plains of the Trans-Pecos (or “Far West Texas”, if you prefer, an extension of the vast Chihuahuan Desert), and I’m accustomed to lounging around the quartz sand dunes that drift through the area. That’s actually why no one has discovered another member of my species before: Texas is home to 32 of the almost-50 species of bats that call the United States “home”, so I tend to get lost in the crowd.

As for the “bat” part of the name, well…

…Seriously, just look at me.

What the hell would you call me?

 

All kidding aside, the -bat part of Dunebat is actually the modern form of a slightly longer, older word used as a family name. While the name has at least three possible secret origins shrouded by the mists of history, what I present to you herein is one hypothetical origin story…

Image courtesy of SwordsAndWeapons.net. How bad ass is your family when your surname means “beating stick”?

A long time ago in Medieval England, a family of merchants made their living hawking their wares. Existence was rough for merchants in those days. If businessmen didn’t have the means to protect their goods, they likely wouldn’t have anymore goods to trade for very long. Medieval marketeers had to attain and learn to use cheap, easy-to-use, easy-to-maintain weaponry, or they were out of business the moment they were accosted by some nefarious highwayman. One of the most basic weapons readily available was the lowly cudgel — commonly called a “bat” in modern vernacular — and many members of this family of merchants became so proficient in its use that their clan became well known for it. (If any members of this family were travelers, their weaponry could serve double-purpose as walking sticks, too.)

By the time members of this family had spread throughout England1, the family had adopted the word “bat” — well, one of its many Olde English variant spellings, “Batte”2 — as their surname. Some time before the Renaissance period, these tradesmen had grown so wealthy that their family became an institution among the English middle class. Soon, they owned lands and estates, and some of them found their way into the nobility.

Once you’re in the nobility, of course, you have to requisition a spiffy family crest so others can see how far your family has come. Crests were all the rage back then! A language of iconography arose around the designing of such sigils. The heraldic symbols on one’s coat of arms had to embody the strength, honor, and respect one’s family had earned through their deeds (or that they had acquired through their wealth, anyway). While nobles often had weapons of honor emblazoned on their crests — swords, staves, axes, maces and the like, the weaponry of knights and warriors without peer — it’s a little tough to gain respect among the upper class with the lowly beating stick, sidearm of the lower class, adorning your coat of arms.

That’s when someone in the family realized: “You know, there’s something else that’s called a ‘bat’…”3

(Of course, it’s just as likely someone took the name for some other reason — maybe because they were a landowner and the name “Batte” was a pet name for “Bartholemew”, the meaning of which implies that one is a “farmer” or “landowner”; maybe they lived out in the fields, as the Olde English bata meant “pasture”; or maybe the name was given to the family because their members were thick and heavyset like a cudgel or had surly or hostile attitudes, people more liable to hit you with a bat than talk to you — but I’m trying to be poetic here.)

The Ratpenat, courtesy of Wikipedia and licensed under Creative Commons.

In heraldry, the humble bat (also called the “reremouse“, or the ratpenat in Catalan) is primarily associated with the townships of the old Crown of Aragon (as the symbol was most famously used by King James I the Conqueror and his offspring). Initially used as an alternative to dragons on some crests, the bat, mch like the weapon that shares its name, was used to inspire fear in one’s enemies and signify one’s familiarity with the powers of darkness, obfuscation, and chaos. In Christian circles, the bat was often depicted as “the bird of the Devil” (regardless of our actual status as mammals), the physical manifestation of the Prince of Darkness himself. (This was before its association with Bram Stoker’s famed vampire, as the vampire bat was native to the New World and wouldn’t be discovered until 1810. Quite the pop cultural coup for a critter that ate only bugs and fruits.) Over time, the creature also symbolized the death-and-rebirth cycle depicted in numerous mythologies and the conquering of one’s fears as a sojourner ventured through the darkness of night toward the light of dawn — a trek merchants headed from one town to another to peddle their wares would certainly well-acquainted with.

 

Like I said: that’s one possible origin — a variation of one of three possible origins, actually — for the -bat part of Dunebat. (It’s also not very secret an origin, now that I’ve posted it here on my website, but calling it a “secret origin” is a really neat marketing gimmick.) It’s a mite fanciful, I admit, but my mind tends toward the fantastic.

Or I could be called “Dunebat” because I’m a diminutive winged mammal native to one of North America’s many desert regions. I’ll let you decide which origin you prefer.

 

 

Footnotes

  1.  Members of this family might have been found in France and Ireland as well. The French word batté — which has been used as a surname — literally means “batter”, as in “someone who hits something with a bat”. Additionally, “Batt” exists as a surname in Ireland as well as in England.
  2. Other variations of the surname in question include “Batt”, “Batts”, and even “Bates”. Even cursory genealogical research reveals the interconnected nature of the Batte, Batt, Batts, and Bates families: Captain Henry Batte — a Yorkshire boy who immigrated to Virginia with his father, Captain John Batte — was also known as “Henry Batt” and “Henry Batts”, and his father John was also called “John Bates”. Of course, there are other variant forms as well, such as “La Batte” or “De La Batte“…
  3.  Naturally, the bat is a common theme on Batte family coats of arms, or on crests of related families like the Batt clan. Of course, many of these supposed family crests seem a little generic in their design and may be little more than trinkets designed by enterprising purveyors of otherwise meaningless tchotchkes taking advantage of someone’s interest in genealogy. To further confuse matters, anyone is legally allowed to design and register their own coat of arms in the United States. If you’re interested in finding your family’s historic coat of arms, consult with a certified professional genealogist (contact the Association of Professional Genealogists or the Board for Certification of Genealogists for more information) or an official heraldic authority (like England’s College of Arms or any of the other heraldic authorities worldwide).