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Many thanks to Dave Shelvey for sending me this theory on the origin of the word Shelvey.


The Forgotten Word Shelvey

By David Robert Shelvey

25 November 2001


The surname Shelvey is listed in the Dictionary of British Surnames as a
proper British family name. According to the British Dictionary of
pronouncing British surnames it is pronounced "she'l vee" with emphases on
the "e." It is not found in any of the surname listings of Irish, Scottish,
or Welsh family surnames as some surname research societies have wrongfully
stated. Neither is it found as a last name of landowners in the Doomsday
Book. Shelvey is listed in America as also a proper first and middle name,
but today as a first or middle name it is a very unique name. The British
records also list the family name Shelvy under the family name Shelvey, but,
Shelvy is not separately recognized as a proper family name because either
Britain views the surname Shelvy is incorrectly spelt or does not follow
custom or tradition of the spellings of surnames (which I will talk about
later) because they view it as a surname that does not follow naming rules
(the suffix -y rather then -ey) or just too rare of a name. You will find
the name Shelvy to be a popular first female name among Americans. I do not
believe the surname Shelvy and Shelvey are a misspelling as they share the
same root, but have two different meanings. Therefore, the ones spelling
their surname Shelvy and Shelvey knew exactly how they wanted their name

The whole reason for the Doomsday Book was to find out who owns land so
William could tax the landowners. In every town, village and hamlet, the
commissioners asked the same questions to everyone with interest in land
from the barons to the villagers that who held property at the time of King
Edward. If a person they ran into only had a first name they would either
ask them to choice a name or provide a surname for them. First after a place
or area was not available they then went to their occupation, and last
something sacred to them. Later on this research paper I will get more into
detail about choosing surnames. If the person they were obtaining a name
from rented a house then they would not be a landowner and thus their name
would not be in the Doomsday Book. However, that person would now have a
surname for life.

The origin of the name Shelvey could be either a job description,
occupation, or trade name that has been long forgotten or the proper name of
a place that the name was changed or a word describing a place. As said
earlier, Shelvey as a name has been found as a first, middle and last name.
To research the forgotten meaning of shelvey we will research the two parts
that make-up the word, the root word shelve and the suffix -ey.

The root SHELVE (pronounced shelf):

The researchers of words or the word's etymology place the word shelve
coming from the word shoal. They date the spelling of shoal being used
around 980 AD and the word shelve around 1580-1590 AD. About 100 years later
it was found recorded that shelvy was used as the adjective of shelve. The
words are not found in any foreign language, which means the word has been
made up at the time to describe something not found in the English language.
The words shoal, shelve, and shelvy are all listed as of unknown origin. The
research on these words are solely based on its use in literature as the
more common term of sandbanks instead of the usage of shoal and shelve or
the very rare usage of shelvy and the common use of reefs in the English
language has made their word usage obsolete. My research proves that the use
of the word shelvey should be used today and would eliminate a lot of words
used to describe what this one word does. To find the meaning of shelvey we
need to research words were it comes from. Etymologists time line first
shoal and then later came shelve then last was shelvy.

The meaning of shoal is as follows:

shoal \shol\, n.
1. Shallow; A shallow place in a body of water; sea, river, lake. Shallow is
probably akin to Old English sceald shallow.
2. A sandy elevation of the bottom of a body of water, constituting a hazard
to navigation; a sandbank or sandbar that makes the water shallow;
specifically: an elevation which is not rocky and on which there is a depth
of water of six fathoms (11 meters) or less.

The word shoal has several meanings but the usage of the word meaning of
shallowness and difficulty (surrounded by shoals; the area was shoaly) were
we get the word shelve. The word shoal was used to warn navigators of areas
to avoid because they were shallow or shoal.

The meaning of shelve is as follows:

shelve \Shelve\, v. i. [imp. & p. p. Shelved; p. pr. & vb. n. Shelving.]
[Perhaps originally from the same source as shallow, but influenced by
shelf, a ledge, a platform.] To incline gradually; to be slopping; as, the
bottom shelves from the shore.

The word was most commonly used to describe how the water bank found at the
shore or river lowers down into the water. One would walk down this bank or
shelve to get to the water. The word was also used to describe the sides of
the reefs, the way they raise up from the sea bottom almost touching the
surface and where the area was shoaly.

The meaning of shelvy is as follows:

shelvy \Shelv'y\, a. [form of shelve substantive + -y.]
1. Sloping gradually; shelving.
The shore was shelvy and shallow. --Shak.
2. Shelvy adj.: full of submerged or underwater reefs or sandbanks or
shoals; "reefy shallows"; "shoaly waters" [syn: reefy, shelfy, shoal,
shoaly, shelve]. Applied to rocks that form a shelf or ledge.

The shoaly area that was slightly under water that was dangers or the side
of the land inclining to the waterfront was said to be shelvy.

Many of the words we use and their spellings come to us from how writers
wrote them and used them. An example is there has been other spellings of
shelve over the years:

shelve - 1587
sheluy - 1598
sheluie - 1609
shelving - 1614
shelvie - 1657
shelues - 1657
shelvy - 1746

We can also find the surname Shelvey before 1634 and Shelvy before 1651 but
it is not recorded until 1746 that shelvy was used as an adjective to
describe a shelfy area.

To recap, etymologists say shoal was first used to state a sandbank was
under the water or the river was shoal so a boat could not float or if one
was on foot a shallow area to cross. Then the word shelve was used to
describe how the water bank slopes down to the water. If under the water
there was a hidden sandbank or a rocky reef close to the water surface it
was describe as being a shelve. It is thought the way the sandbank goes up
like a mountain and how it slopes that writers used shelve to describe this.
Then a writer took shelve and used it as an adjective describing the area as
shelvy. So an area with a sandbank and has a lot of shoals the adjective
shoaly would be used. An area that is full of or characterized by shelve the
adjective shelvy should be used to properly described the area as, "that
whole area out that is dangerous and shelvy, destroying ships as they try to
come to port."

But here we are researching the meaning of shelvey, not only as a surname,
but as a conversation word too. Shelvey is not found in the Oxford or
Webster's dictionary. Their excuse, no literature has been found with
shelvey in it to support its spelling as genuine. Of course, the word
shelvey was around before they were, so they really don't have an excuse. It
is the meaning and usage of the word that they can't find, until now.

The suffix -EY:

1. Place name; A word-final element, derived from Old English ieg "islet"
used in forming place names with the extended meaning 'water, river;
island'. A dry point. A clear vignette of a particular spot in the medieval
landscape. -ey is also a very common Old English place-name element for
surnames. The names of the Towns and Villages that are to be found along the
Thames ending in -ey are always referring to an island. Some names (those
ending in -ey for instance) indicate cult centers on islands, like that of
the old Nerthus in Tacitus' account. Virtually all of the place names
decided on up to around the 14th Century were due to the environment of the
The Old Norse (believed to be first origin) used -ey to refer to an island.
The Anglo-Saxon (350AD - 1000AD) used -ea (-ey) to refer to a water or river
and -eg; -ey; -eig to refer to an island. Sometimes it seems -ea referred to
the water around an island.
The Vikings (750AD - 1100AD) often used Øy (-ey) to refer to an island.
The Scandinavian used -ey as a term for landscape features. An island or
drier place in a marshy area. -ey is never found on its own, only as an
integral part of a place-name such as Pudsey.
It was very common when choosing a surname name for an uneducated peasant to
simply name them after some area landscape where they lived in. For a person
living in a thick oak forest they simply call them Oakley. A person living
along the shelvy part of the waterfront would be called Shelvy. It was then
written down for them and this became their legal name. When they had
children they chose a first name and the surname was automatically given to
2. Trade name; A native English suffix of adjectives meaning "characterized
by or inclined to" the substance or action of the word or stem to which the
suffix is attached. A person who was the local court bailiff may not fit
into a place name if they lived in the city. So they were given a trade
surname. For the bailiff he became Bailey. His surname was of course
characterized to his job. A person that was a blacksmith for a living would
then be called Smith.
3. Sacred name; early English surnames at times where named after sacred
trees, stones, crosses, etc. Tree names, like Oakley, seem to disappear
early, perhaps their significance faded earlier.

To find the meaning of shelvey we must research where the name most likely
comes from, The Goodwin Sands.

The Goodwin Sands is an area of sandbanks that is a stretch of shoals and
sandbars in the Straight of Dover that lies four miles off the coast of
Deal, Kent, England. It forms a breakwater E of The Downs, a roadstead.
Tradition says The Goodwin Sands once was the fertile island of Lomea. Lomea
consisted at one time of about 4,000 acres of low land fenced from the sea
by a wall and belonging to territory of the infamous Earl Godwin or Goodwin
of Wessex, Southeast England. William the Conqueror bestowed them on the
abbey of St. Augustine, at Canterbury, and the abbot allowed the sea wall to
fall into a dilapidated state, so that the sea broke through in a late 11th.
cent. storm and inundated the whole island. It is claimed that the Earl's
island sunk because of his sins, "sonk sodainly into the sea." It seems his
sin was Edward the Confessor, King of England since 1042, ordered Earl
Godwin to protect his Norman friends at Dover, Kent, England from some
visiting unruly Frenchmen. But instead Godwin raised an army against the
king rather then delivering his Norman friends at Dover and in 1052 the
Normans left Dover and Earl Godwin and his army took over the area.
Shakespeare also mentions The Goodwin Sands as a fearful "shippe-swallower"
in The Merchant of Venice where the hero, Antonio, loses an entire fortune
when his ship founders on the quicksands. The sandbank is also known as 'The
Widower' for it has been the graveyard of thousands of tall ships and brave
seamen over the centuries.

Ten to twelve miles long and five miles across at their widest point, the
shape of The Goodwin Sands changes constantly because of the water pushing
around the sands. This constant changing has made rendering them impossible
to chart with accuracy. The shifting sands also do not allow the
construction of lighthouses, but there are several lightships and numerous
buoys. There are several times during the year when the tide is low enough
it becomes an island. A hovercraft called The Goodwin Sands actually lands
on this temporary island where the English game of cricket is played. This
island, which when submerged is a shoal, you can also say is very shelvy,
but in the English language it when it becomes an island it is a shelvey.
Used in a sentence you would have to say, "The Goodwin Sands, when visible,
are a shelvey." In a dictionary it should be defined as follows:


shelvey /Shelvey/, a. [form of shelve substantive + -ey.] [Perhaps shelve
with the Old Norse -ey for island to form the word meaning].
1. Shelvey adj.: an area that at high tide is full of submerged or
underwater reefs or sandbanks or shoals but at low tide becomes a visible
island; "uncovered or exposed reefy shallows where the top and sides
properly (called shelve) are visible"; "a visible area that forms an island
that normally is submerged in shoaly waters." Applied to visible land at low
tide forming an island that normally forms a shoal, reef, or sandbank

"The island out there in the water is a shelvey because as the tide rises it
will disappear into the water."

So now we come to the surname Shelvey. Research of records seems to point to
the word shelvey as a one-name surname that was started in the Deal or
Sandwich, Kent area of England and is a geographical distribution referring
to or describing The Goodwin Sands when visible. Chances that this is a
trade name to one who navigates ships through the shelvy area of The Goodwin
Sands when visible is slim. It could be the name of a local man they nick
named Shelvey because he chartered boats out to the island when it became
visible. I do not believe that the name Shelvey came to remember this now
gone island but most likely how this now sunken island became a shelvy area,
destroying ships as they came to close to her and then a few times a year
the island reappears as a shelvey. The locals would have said it is a
shelvey but since the word shelvey was not found in a written sentence it
was not recorded in the dictionary it became a forgotten word. But we know
it was around before 1650 because of it's surname usage.

Researching a British name has its challenges. Sometimes a name was recorded
at birth, other times a few years later at a christening, or later in life
at the wedding registration, and of course there was wills and deaths where
recorded names can be found. Once and a while you find a name was misspelt
and the person would return and correct the spelling. There is an early
recording of a Shelvey (Jane Abbot Shelvey in 1759) correcting their first
name but not the last.

So the surname Shelvey is most likely a place name which would account why
others have a first or middle name Shelvey, it was a valid word several
hundred years ago.

In closing, there are other shelveys in the World beyond The Goodwin Sands;
here is a partial list of other shelveys:

Sable Island, NS. has various offshore sandbars, tides, and currents. If a
vessel is caught it is virtually finished. Sand tends to build up between
sea and ship. The movement of the sand has been known to raise sunken ships.
There are over 300 wrecks at this local.

The South China Sea is often a dangerous place. Fog and general poor
visibility along with low lying islands and numerous sunken reefs and hidden
shoals can make for a mariner's nightmare.

Scatarie Island, NS is now a wildlife preserve. Reefs and shoals extend as
far out as a mile making this area dangerous

Horseshoe Reef off Anegada Island in the Virgin Islands extends 20 miles out
from the island. Many vessels have made this reef their final resting-place.
Artifacts are not allowed to be removed from the islands that are under the
British rule.

Cefn Sidan Sands, Carmarthen Bay, Wales are known to shift a great deal and
have trapped many a vessel.

Wolf Rock lies 8 miles Southwest of Lands End, Cornwall. It is a rock
pinnacle in deep water.

By David Robert Shelvey

November 25, 2001


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