Masc/Fem names: When do they differ?

We mentioned in our previous post how Latin records are so nice for uniquely identifying the gender of the bearer of names — someone who is filius Edwini is the son of a man named Edwin, while if he were filius Edwine he’d be the some of a woman called Edwina.

But how often is this merely a requirement of Latin grammar, that every word have one of three grammatical genders, and how often is this reflective of the underlying vernacular practice? Naturally, this depends on what the vernaculars are, and those which descended from Latin (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese) are much more likely to keep an explicit grammatical distinction in the names. In Iberia, that shows up in the preponderance of women’s names ending in -a (though, of course, there are exceptions, such as Spanish and Catalan forms of Beatrice). In Italy, you see the same marking of feminine names, but often paired with a distinctive masculine ending in -o (as can be seen in the list of masculine/feminine pairs in 15th C Florence). In France, southern dialects tend towards Iberian practices, while in northern dialects, masculine names are generally unmarked, while feminine forms are derived by adding an -e (earlier) or doubling the final consonant and then adding an -e (later).

In England, however, the Latin forms often introduced distinctions not present in the vernacular. Withycombe, p. xxxv notes that:

Latin records of the 12th to 15th centuries show that the custom of giving masculine names to girls was also common in England; they appear in Latin with feminine endings, e.g., Philippa, Nicholaa, Alexandra, Jacoba, but it is clear that girls so named were in fact baptized and called Philip, Nicholas, Alexander, James, etc….Other names which were commonly used for girls were Gilbert, Aubrey, Reynold, Basil, Eustace, Giles, Edmund, Simon, Florence.

When the only references we have are in Latin, it is difficult to obtain evidence via which to test Withycombe’s assertion about the vernacular. However, once we start seeing records in Middle English and Early Modern English, then it is possible to see to what extent the feminine vernacular forms resemble the masculine.

The majority of our examples of Philipa in England are from the 16th C, and the majority of these are variants without the terminal (in fact, most of the examples with the -a are restricted to Devon, suggesting a regional early adoption of the Latin form as the vernacular.)

Feminine forms of Nicholas were never very common in England, and inspection of the entry for Nicole is only partly confirmatory of what Withycombe says. The vernacular forms have all lost the -a, but none of them have the -as. Instead, vernacular forms like Nichol and Nycoll look much more like the French feminine form of the name (and the spelling we took as the header name). This makes it more likely that girls named Nichol in the vernacular were named in accordance with the imported French form than simply given the masculine English form.

We don’t yet have any examples of Alexandra in England; Withycombe herself has only two early 13th C examples, adding that

Alexandra is found in England in 1205 and Alexandria in 1218, and these may have been named after a 4th-C martyr, though they are more likely to be mere latinizations of Alexander used as a girl’s name….Lyford 1655 gives Alexander as a f. name, and an early-14th-C English legendary gives Alisaundre as the name of the mother of St. Thomas of Canterbury

Further data will need to be collected to see more clearly how this feminine name appears in the vernacular.

Similarly, we have very few examples of Jacoba in English contexts, and curiously, all of them are diminutive forms: Jacobin, Jackett, and Jakett, all of which could equally easily be used by men.

Of the other names Withycombe mentions, only three of them do we have feminine examples from England. We have a handful of 12th-14th C examples of Basile in its Latin form Basilia, but our only vernacular example, in the 16th C, is not Basil but Basile, the usual French form. Eustacia in the vernacular is Eustice. The third name, Florence, is curious in that we have plenty of vernacular feminine examples of this spelling, — but no masculine ones! In fact, vernacular forms of the masculine version tend to end in -t, e.g., Florent.

It wasn’t until the end of the 16th C that you regularly start seeing Latinate forms, like Olivia, Isabella, Joanna, etc., instead of Olive, Isabel, Joan, etc., used in the vernacular. This is due in no small part to the influence of Shakespeare on English naming patterns at the turn of the 17th C, as he preferred Italian or Latinate forms of names in many cases. This penchant for the Latin -a ending can still be seen today, with the preponderance of feminine names given in English-speaking countries being ones ending with that letter or sound.

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Masc/fem names: Masculine forms of feminine names

Browsing through the Dictionary, you’ll find plenty of names whose origin is listed as simply “Fem. of [NAME]”, with a cross-reference to the relevant masculine name. There are many pairs of names which differ only on the basis of their grammatical endings, usually Latin. (The fact that Latin is gendered makes it a most wonderful language for recording names; there is never any ambiguity as to whether Philippus filius is a man and Philippa filia a woman!)

Whenever we write an etymology which is simply “Fem. of [NAME]”, there is always a question of whether this accurately captures the whole story. There are certainly masc./fem. pairs where there is more to the feminine name than simply this pairing with a masculine name. For example, for names deriving from Latin adjectives, which come in different forms for different genders, it makes more sense to list the grammatically appropriate Latin word for the etymology of each, rather than glossing the masculine name with the masculine adjective and then cross-referencing the feminine form.

But when the root elements themselves are not gendered (as is the case with early dithematic Germanic names. Of course there are certain themes which are only used in men’s names, or only used in women’s names — and these will be a topic of a future post — but there are many cross-over elements, used for both genders, and these are often only distinguishable through their Latinized forms), there is no distinct origin that each name of the pair can be traced to. In this case, one could ask why we gloss the feminine name as a feminine form of a masculine name, rather than glossing the masculine name as a masculine form of a feminine name. For this, there is no strongly principled reason behind our decision, other than the fact that we simply have orders of magnitude more men’s names than women’s names — both in terms of specific citations and in terms of distinct names. It is much more likely to have a masculine name that we can point the feminine back to than to have a feminine name with no corresponding masculine form.

Which is why when this is not the case, the names are so interesting. In this post, we discuss three names that are most plausibly said to be masculine forms of feminine names, Katherin, Maria, and Margaritus.

Why do we consider these masculine forms of feminine names, rather than independent names of similar origin? The answer is slightly different in each case. The use of forms of Mary by men is usually thought of as a 17th C religious practice, when devotional names became more common. However, we have, so far, two clear examples of the name being used by men in the 16th C, an example of Marie in 16th C France (from the parish registers of the Protestant Church at Caen, no less! Probably the least likely place we’d expect to see it), and a slightly earlier one of Maria in Rome. There is very little doubt that these are cases of the feminine name being appropriate by men, rather than a masculine/feminine pair which happen to have related origin. It was difficult to choose an appropriate header form for these citations; when Mary was used by men, it was used in exactly the same spellings it was used by women at the same time and place. But the back-end structure of the Dictionary doesn’t allow us to have two distinct entries with the same header name, so in the end we opted for Maria, the standard Latin form of the name.

For Katherin, we can give an etymological argument. The origin of the feminine form, Katherine, is uncertain. The oft-repeated derivation of the name from Greek καθαρός ‘pure’ is unsupportable; it wasn’t until quite late that Kathar- spellings are found. The actual Greek root, Αἰκατερίνα or Αἰκατερίνη, does not have a masculine correlate. The two uses of this name that we have by men are quite late: Cathelin in France in 1566 (like the example of Marie from the Protestant Church at Caen) and Catherini, a Latin genitive from Rome in 1527. Again, the popularity of the feminine name, the paucity of examples of the masculine, and the lack of any plausible distinct but related etymological origin, the most likely explanation is that these are examples of the feminine name being co-opted by men.

The final example, Margaritus, is not so clear a case. We do not have any examples in the Dictionary yet, but in our data-waiting-to-be-processed, we have a collection of names from Imola, Italy, in 1312 which has 11 examples of Malgaritus, making it one of the more popular masculine names in the data set. Curiously, here, μαργαρίτης, the etymology of the feminine name, is itself masculine. Thus, one could argue that on the basis of etymology, it would make more sense to take Margaritus as basic, and Margaret as derivative. However, again the paucity of masculine examples, and the clear popularity of Margaret throughout medieval Europe, due first to the popularity of Saint Margaret of Antioch and then later also to other saints, make it more likely that Margaritus or Malgaritus was constructed as a masculine honor-name for the saint.

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Mystery Monday: Bohussius

Every Monday we will post an entry that hasn’t yet been published with a view towards harnessing the collective onomastic power of the internet. If you have any thoughts about the name’s origin, other variants it might be related to, other examples of its use, etc., please share them in the comments! If you wish to browse other Mystery Monday names, there is an index.

Today’s mystery name is Bohus(s)ius, a masculine name found in Moravia in the middle of the 14th C. All of our examples come from Latin contexts, but one citation — Bohusye — gives us some insight into what the vernacular forms would look like.


If you have any information on this name, please share it in the comments!


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Masc./fem. name pairs in the 1427 Catasto of Florence

We’ll kick things off this month by looking at a very focused data set, the Online Catasto of Florence of 1427, edited by David Herlihy, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, R. Burr Litchfield and Anthony Molho.

748 distinct masculine names and 255 distinct feminine names were recorded in the Catasto. The following 123 pairs of names from the Catasto show that there was widespread feminization of masculine names, both common and uncommon ones; 29% of the masculine names have a corresponding feminine form, while 48% of the feminine names are feminized forms of masculine names. The feminized forms show a fairly distinct pattern: In general, masculine terminal -o and -i changed to -a, and terminal -e and -a remained unchanged. There are few exceptions to this pattern.

In constructing this list, we considered only direct matches (e.g., ones where the only difference between the masculine and the feminine forms was the final vowel), with the exception of the pairs Agabito/Agabitta and Camillo/Cammilla. This means that feminine names that are feminization of diminutives that do not show up in the Catasto are not listed, nor are spelling variants, unless the variant occurs in both the men’s and the women’s names. As a result, this data underestimates the amount of pairs.

Masculine Number Feminine Number
Agabito 1 Agabitta 1
Agnesa 1 Agnesa 1
Agnolo 86 Agnola 26
Alamanno 5 Alamanna 1
Aldighieri 1 Aldighiera 1
Alessandro 11 Alessandra 3
Andrea 206 Andrea 206
Andreolo 1 Andreola 1
Antonio 661 Antonia 84
Apollonio 5 Apollonia 15
Banco 5 Banca 2
Bartolo 72 Bartola 5
Bartolomeo 290 Bartolomea 46
Bello 1 Bella 5
Bene 2 Bene 1
Benedetto 70 Benedetta 6
Benevenuto 1 Benvenuta 2
Bernardo 132 Bernarda 5
Bertino 4 Bertina 1
Betto 18 Betta 17
Bettino 10 Bettina 1
Biagio 43 Biagia 5
Biondo 2 Bionda 2
Buono 14 Buona 6
Camillo 1 Camilla 1
Camillo 1 Cammilla 1
Cecco 38 Cecca 43
Chiaro 5 Chiara 3
Ciano 1 Ciana 1
Ciulo 1 Ciula 1
Corradino 1 Corradina 1
Cristofano 91 Cristofana 6
Deo 3 Dea 2
Domenico 234 Domenica 13
Dono 2 Dona 1
Donato 37 Donata 1
Donnino 6 Donnina 1
Dore 1 Dora 1</td
Duccio 11 Duccia 1
Feo 5 Fea 4
Felice 6 Felice 6
Filippo 134 Filippa 21
Fino 1 Fina 1
Fiore 1 Fiore 10
Franco 5 Franca 1
Francesco 390 Francesca 34
Franchino 1 Franchina 1
Frosino 30 Frosina 1
Gentile 7 Gentile 1
Geri 14 Gera 2
Gherardo 26 Gherarda 2
Giano 5 Giana 1
Giannotto 2 Gianotta 1
Gilio 2 Gilia 1
Giovanni 739 Giovanna 39
Girolama 12 Girolama 1
Gostanzo 1 Gostanza 19
Grazia 3 Grazia 1
Guglielmino 2 Gugliemina 1
Guido 47 Guida 4
Iacopo 329 Iacopa 15
Lapo 17 Lapa 8
Lapaccio 3 Lapaccia 3
Leonardo 82 Leonarda 12
Lippo 8 Lippa 1
Lisa 1 Lisa 45
Lore 1 Lora 2
Lorenzo 216 Lorenza 12
Lotto 13 Lotta 1
Lottieri 2 Lottiera 2
Luca 82 Luca 4
Lucio 1 Lucia 14
Manetto 9 Manetta 1
Mariano 20 Marianna 1
Maruccio 1 Maruccia 1
Maso 44 Masa 4
Matteo 136 Mattea 28
Mea 2 Mea 30
Michelino 2 Michelina 1
Migliore 5 Migliore 3
Mino 3 Mina 1
Naldino 1 Naldina 1
Nanni 92 Nanna 51
Nardo 25 Narda 1
Nastagio 2 Nastagia 3
Nencio 10 Nencia 4
Neri 37 Nera 5
Neso 1 Nese 2
Niccolo 259 Niccola 1
Nigi 4 Nigia 1
Nofri 24 Nofra 6
Nuto 5 Nuta 1
Nutino 1 Nutina 1
Onesto 1 Onesta 1
Orso 2 Orsa 1
Orsino 2 Orsina 1
Pace 9 Pace 2
Pagolo 132 Pagola 10
Papero 1 Papera 14
Papino 2 Papina 1
Piccardo 1 Piccarda 1
Piero 391 Piera 53
Pippo 23 Pippa 19
Ricco 6 Ricca 1
Riccardo 9 Riccarda 1
Rosso 6 Rossa 1
Salvestro 47 Salvestra 4
Sandro 40 Sandra 19
Santi 23 Santa 5
Simone 132 Simona 18
Stefano 69 Stefana 2
Taddeo 33 Taddea 14
Tedesco 1 Tedesca 1
Tommaso 138 Tommasa 19
Tone 2 Tona 1
Toro 1 Tora 1
Ulivo 2 Uliva 2
Vaggio 1 Vaggia 6
Vangelista 2 Vangelista 2
Vanni 20 Vanna 5
Verdiano 1 Verdiana 1
Vettorio 6 Vettoria 1
Zanobi 88 Zanobia 20

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Monthly topic: Masc/fem pairs

The monthly topic for February is going to be masculine/feminine pairs of names, but very broadly construed. When we asked for input as to the topic on social media, a commenter on Facebook suggested “Names that have switched genders between medieval usage and now”, which we think is an excellent way of interpreting the broad topic! In addition to this, we will also take a look at when and where you find masculine/feminine name pairs; the influence of Latinization; dithematic Germanic names and which themes are used by which genders; and rare examples of masculine names formed from feminine names.

So a bit of a hodge-podge but we hope you’ll find it interesting!

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New publications

We’re pleased to announce two new publications by members of the DMNES staff:

An English translation of the first half of Uckelman & Slíz is available upon request to

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Mystery Monday: Ephrod

We asked on social media for reader input on our next monthly topic, and people on Facebook were firmly in favor of masculine/feminine name pairs while people on Twitter voted for mystery names. We’ve decided to take up the former for the monthly topic, but rather than make the latter the topic for March, we’re going to start a new series: Mystery Monday!

Every Monday we will post an entry that hasn’t yet been published with a view towards harnessing the collective onomastic power of the internet. If you have any thoughts about the name’s origin, other variants it might be related to, other examples of its use, etc., please share them in the comments! If you wish to browse other Mystery Monday names, there is an index.

Our first Mystery Monday name is Ephrod. It’s a name that sure looks like some obscure Biblical name, and our single example of it from 16th C England puts it in a context where that would be likely — except we haven’t been able to find any instance of this name in the Bible, or elsewhere!



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