I have a book called "A guide to the birds of Trinidad and Tobago" and the author is named as "Richard ffrench" with a small "f". The author's name is spelled the same way by the Library of Congress, with a lower-case letter starting the surname. What is the origin of this strange spelling? I would guess this "ff" is supposed to represent some special letter which is not a normal part of the Roman alphabet.

  • I suppose the letter is ff.
    – IS4
    Jun 10 '18 at 10:43
  • Good question—I’ve always wondered this myself, naïvely imagining it might be Welsh-related (though that never explained the lowercase). Jun 10 '18 at 16:09
  • can you provide an image?
    – Ooker
    Jun 11 '18 at 4:14

According to the Oxford English Dictionary's page for F:

In manuscripts a capital F was often written as ff. A misunderstanding of this practice has caused the writing of Ff or ff at the beginning of certain family names, e.g. Ffiennes, Ffoulkes.

(The pilgrimage of the life of man, English by John Lydgate, A. D. 1426 is an example of a manuscript where a lot of words were written this way, such as in "[...] an holsomme Refuge
whan they fflen to the ffor socour [...]".)

  • 2
    Interesting, but why? Why not write F as F?
    – Kyll
    Jun 10 '18 at 14:38
  • 1
    @Kyll Hazarding a guess here: a calligrapher’s pen (which scribes usually used) often has a separable nib, which will ‘split’ in the middle if you press hard enough. In a capital F, the stem (the vertical line) will be a thick stroke, and the cross strokes will be thin. If you press hard enough, the stem can then separate and end up looking like two vertical lines, with cross strokes running across them—which would make it look a lot like two lowercase fs next to each other. So it may have started as a stylistic affectation of F and then been reinterpreted as ff, which caught on. Jun 10 '18 at 16:20
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet Mh, wouldn't it also apply to other letters then?
    – Kyll
    Jun 10 '18 at 16:34
  • 1
    @Kyll Are there any other letters which, if a thick stem is changed into two thin strokes, would look like two separate lowercase letters? A double-stroked capital I (i) could of course look like two lowercase ls (Ls), but there are very few cases where i and ll can in any way be substituted. I can’t really see any other letters even coming close to being mistakable in this way. Jun 10 '18 at 16:39
  • 1
    There are those who suggest that F → ff was due to the Blackletter F being misread, rather than a splayed nib. Jun 10 '18 at 17:42

I realize it’s been 18 months since this has been asked, but here is your answer:


With attention paid to the paragraph, “In some cases, the name does not start with an initial capital, but with a lower-case f; the double F is derived from the blackletter F.[citation needed] The Irish branch is considered to be one of the "Tribes of Galway", having been there since the 13th century.”

  • 1
    [citation needed]. The citation would need to survey and discount other theories. A mere by-the-way mention does not suffice, not for wikipedia, not for me.
    – vectory
    Dec 27 '19 at 16:22

Other theories:

  1. (ff) was not word-initial, originally, and there was no uppercase for it; the doubling was to indicate that a short vowel preceded, within the same word (at the beginning of the word, there could not be a preceding vowel).


  1. (f) came to replace digraph (ph)


Keeping the ff small might have been to mark off the difference from phrene, if to derive ffrench from "de Freynes" as here;


Google translate would show the Danish inferiore freniske arterier as inferior French arteries, even today. ;)

enter image description here

  1. Monks and scribes marked off a correlation with the Armenian small letter ben, բ



The Armenian alphabet and Latin, Coptic, Georgian, as well as Cyrillic scripts were sister systems.


One of earliest translations of the Bible was into Armenian, in the 5th-century (I do not know, if there were earlier in distribution; Wycliffe was XIV, Jakub Wujek was XVI century).


In the 18 century it became customary to capitalize digraph first letter, therefore the spelling Ffrench is not incorrect, as well as the spelling ffrench may be retained, for name histories.

  • 6
    These other theories have presumably originated with the respondent. I'm not convinced by any of them, although the argument involving short vowels is at least plausible. Contact with Armenian in the middle ages is not. Jun 15 '18 at 6:38
  • @Nick Nicholas: "Armenia became the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion in the late 3rd or early 4th century AD", en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenia -- without contact? And yes, they are theories, but I think acceptable, taken there was no problem using single f in calligraphy, capitalizing other digraphs, or family names: the background had to be particular. Jun 16 '18 at 12:44
  • Peculiarity usually happens for one of the following, linguistically: perseveration, idiosyncrasy, or correlate. Jun 16 '18 at 14:50

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