Designing your own coat of arms – Canting arms

In this entry of the series on designing your own coat of arms, we’ll explore canting arms, i.e. arms that play on the name of the armiger.

One of the most popular ways of coming up with ideas for a new coat of arms, and my favorite, is to come up with canting arms. The word “canting” comes from the word “cantar(e)” in Spanish/Italian that means “to sing”. In other words, the arms are a play or pun on one’s name. Canting arms are also known, in French, as “armes parlantes” or “speaking arms”.

What does this mean to you? Well, it’s simple. Think of your surname or the nickname your family has had. Does it mean anything? Is it a combination of words? Or is it a toponym?

Martyrdom of Andrewimage courtesy of Wikipedia

Let’s take for example my own surname of “Andreou”. As I mention in my post on my arms, my surname is the ancient Greek form of the name “Andrew”. I used the saltire (X like cross) as a cant of my surname as this symbolizes St. Andrew the Apostle.

Every name has a cant. The question is really whether someone wants to use it or not.

Many times it’s not easy to find out what the surname means. This is usually because the name derives either from a non-English language or from some archaic version of the word.

Taking some examples from Boutell’s Heraldry (1983 ed) we find the following examples: the De Lucy shield bearing three pikefish (at the time called “lucies”); the Burdon shield being Gules, three pilgrims staves Argent (a pilgrim’s stave used to be called a “bourdon”);  etc.

Canting arms are not new and are very common in early heraldry and, also according to Boutell’s Heraldry, the arms sometimes were a cant of the armiger’s first name.

Now that canting arms have been explained comes the difficult part. How do you find out what your surname means? It’s not always easy. Not everyone is named “Smith” where they can use, for example, an anvil. Also, it’s not always supposed to be very clear. One of the joys in heraldry is trying to solve the mystery of the arms and figure out how the charges came about.

For example, let’s take a friend of mine named “Karagiannis”. This surname can be split into two:  “karas” and “giannis”. “Karas” means “black” in Turkish and was very commonly given by the Ottomans as a prefix to a Greek’s name. “Giannis” is the Greek form of “John”. In other words, one could translate “Karagiannis” to “Blackjohn”. Taking it a step further, it could be “Blackjack”.  As we all know, the key numbers in the card game of blackjack are 14 and 21. Therefore, a nice cant would be a field of 21 charges. Without knowing the story, the observer would have to wonder how the shield came about.

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