NaNoWriMo: Names as signals

In our previous post on naming characters in historical fiction, we illustrated different positions authors can take on the spectrum from wholly authentic to wholly accessible, and while we don’t want to say that one place on the spectrum is better than another, we did conclude with the observation that “The most important thing is not which option is chosen, but that whichever option is chosen, it is followed uniformly and consistently!”

In this post, we’re going to contradict that advice! First, let’s talk about some of the roles that personal names can fill.

First and foremost, the role of a name is to designate or refer, to uniquely pick out a character in the reader’s mind. This referential role is one reason why, despite how authentic it might be, you don’t necessarily want to name 25% of your characters John! But in addition to designating, names also function as signals, providing the reader with clues about gender, ethnicity, even social status. An author who introduces a character to the reader as Mary will, even without any further description, signal to the reader certain characteristics of Mary, such as that she is a woman.

Most names, unless wholly unfamiliar to a reader, will signal their gender, but carefully chosen, names can signal quite a bit more. In a novel involving characters from many different linguistic and geographic backgrounds, names are a natural way of signalling which of these myriad origins a person can come from, and this signalling can be accomplished by mixing the different techniques we outlined in the previous post.

For example, if the majority of the characters are named according to the 4th option, using the standard modern English form of a name, then introducing a character as Giovanni immediately signals not only that he is a man but also that he is foreign — coming from a different linguistic and geographic context. This technique can be multiplied for as many cultures and contexts as desired!

It’s clear that this method can be used to intentionally signal this sort of information, but it is important to remember that this information can be signalled inadvertently. You might pick a name which is in fact authentic for a particular culture and period, but is more closely associated with another culture, runs the risk of sending the wrong signals. For example, it may be the case that Jan is found as a variant of John in England, but it is more closely associated with the Low Countries and Germany, so the reader who doesn’t know the minutiae of the variations of names in medieval England may be confused by the mix signals sent by the name itself and the context in which it is found.

Which brings us back around to the primary moral of the previous post, namely that sometimes one can be too authentic, in the sense that the result then becomes inaccessible to the reader. Which, in the end, illustrates what’s most important: That the story be enjoyed by the reader, regardless of whether they are an expert onomast or not!

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DMNES goes to Bolzano

Dr. Sara L. Uckelman, editor-in-chief, and Dr. Joel Uckelman, chief technical guru, will be giving talks on the Dictionary and Digital Humanities at the University of Bozen (Bolzano) next month, on Dec. 21, 2015. We’ll post more details on the Events page as they are available.

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NaNoWriMo: Balancing truth and accessibility

In our first post on this month’s monthly topic, we discussed two easy ways in which authors of historical fiction can improve the historicity of the names they use. In this post, we tackle the specific problems that attend to certain periods and cultures, offering suggestions for how to balance truth (i.e., historical authenticity) and accessibility (i.e., the reader’s enjoyment of the work). [1]

Certainly periods and cultures are easier to handle than others; a writer of novels set in 16th C England will have a surfeit of familiar names to choose from — names that have remained in use in English-speaking contexts and could easily be found on the streets, in the classrooms, and in the boardrooms of today. Populating such a novel with John, Alice, Margaret, Henry, William, and Robert not only results in accurately named characters, but it also results in characters whose names are accessible to the reader.

But supposing you’re writing about the Holy Roman Empire in the late 12th and early 13th C. There are a surfeit of records from this period, but they are predominantly in Latin, not in the vernacular. Four possibilities present themselves: (1) Use the Latinate forms of the names, (2) attempt to reconstruct plausible vernaculars, (3) use modern vernaculars, (4) use modern English forms. Each of these have their pros and cons, and which option is the most suitable will depend on a large part in how you wish to balance truth and accessibility, that is, how authentic do you wish to be while not putting off those readers who are not versed in medieval languages or names. For example, writing about the late 12th C Holy Roman Emperor, one could call him (1) Fridericus, (2) Friderich, (3) Friedrich, or (4) Frederick.

(1) This option weights truth over accessibility. It guarantees that you’re using name forms that are appropriate for the time and place, but having every man’s name ending in -us can not only come across to the reader as pretentious (using an archaic form of language nowadays primarily restricted to academic and legal contexts), it can also make it difficult for readers to differentiate the characters on the basis of their names, when they names are functionally too similar.

(2) This option probably strikes the onomast’s perfect balance, but it is also the option that is the most difficult to exercise for those who don’t have specialist knowledge in medieval languages. Unless you’re going to keep a professional linguist or onomast on retainer as a Subject Matter Expert [2], this option may not be feasible – but below we will offer some suggestions.

(3) This option probably strikes the author’s perfect balance, ensuring that the names being used are names that are appropriate for the place and period, even if the specific spelling or form is modern. The standard modern forms of names in non-English European languages – such as Hans, Friedrich, Heinrich, etc. – are likely to be familiar to readers even if they only know or speak English, making the names accessible.

(4) This option weights accessibility over truth. The names become wholly assimilated to the most accessible form, regardless of its appropriateness for the time period and culture in question. One difficulty that can arise with taking this option is the handling of names that don’t have a modern equivalent; these will never be maximally accessible because they will not be familiar to those who are not otherwise historically-versed.

As is clear, each of these options has different trade-offs. The most important thing is not which option is chosen, but that whichever option is chosen, it is followed uniformly and consistently!

In closing we’ll address a few comments to the author who is in (3) but wants to move towards (2), without necessarily keeping an expert on retainer. Of course, we cannot give any recommendations that will be universal across any culture, but we can offer a few pointers:

  • Relational bynames: Most cultures used relational bynames of one type or another, and they are more common the earlier the period. Determine what the appropriate relational markers are for the vernacular of your place (e.g., merch ‘daughter’ and map ‘son’ for Old Welsh; ingen ‘daughter’ and mac ‘son’ for early Gaelic, both Scottish and Irish; di ‘of’ in Italian), as well as any grammatical changes that the relative’s name might undergo following one of these words.
  • Extrapolate: If Friderich is a plausible vernacular form of 12th C Fridericus, then what might Henricus become? If Bernier is a plausible vernacular form of 12th C Bernerus, what might Garnerus or Warnerus become?
  • Diminutives: Extrapolation also works for diminutives. If you’ve found Imeldina, Jacobina, and Franciscina in 14th C Italy, then what might be plausible diminutives of Thomasa and Anthonia?

Sometimes, very small adjustments can result in a big difference!


[1] Throughout this post, and indeed this sheries, we’re going to assume that the authors we’re advising are writing in English. Of course, our advice can easily be adapted to people writing in other languages.

[2] Some authors do! And any author who is interested in doing so, the DMNES staff is always happy to receive queries and do consulting.


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So you want to write historical fiction…

Our monthly topic this month, inspired by all the people out there participating in NaNoWriMo, is the handling of names when writing historical fiction. To kick things off, this post will look at some of the issues that writers and readers of historical fiction face.

One of the perils of doing niche research is that you can be very attune to very precise details that the average person will be completely oblivious too — and this is a peril that can manifest itself in many ways when it comes to interacting with fiction. Watch a science fiction film with a scientist, watch a period flick with a costumer, and there’s going to be some under-the-breath muttering when the details are gotten wrong.

When you’re an onomast, it’s naturally the names that can stick out like a sore thumb. Nothing ruins your enjoyment of book quite like learning from the dust jacket that it’s set in mid 14th C England, and then finding out the first character named in the book is named Gunther. Gunther is a fine medieval name — no doubt about it — but it’s not English, and to someone who has done the research, the discrepancy is discordant.

The tricky thing is that very few people are researchers of medieval names to such a degree, and one could argue that even a writer of historical fiction shouldn’t (or couldn’t) accommodate for all the neuroses of the niche researchers. And yet, for those writers of historical fiction who aren’t experts in names who want to lessen the chances of such jarring moments for the experts, in this month’s monthly topic posts we’ll explore both general and specific advice, and we’ve also been speaking to actual authors of historical fiction about their practices and the pitfalls they’ve faced.

No. 1: Match period and place
This is, of course, an obvious point — the best way to ensure that your names are appropriate for your historical context is to pick names that you know where used when/where your story was set, and so we won’t belabor it. Instead, we’ll simply point the desiring novelist to the Dictionary entries, where they can do just that.

No. 2: Exploit the diminutives
Using names appropriate for the period and place provides a base level of authenticity. But it is possible to use all names which are authentic for a specific period and place and yet end up with a conglomerate which is, itself, not reflective of period practice. This is because the onomastic practice of a particular place and period is not just the names being used but their frequency — no historical novel would be complete without a man named John. There are two difficulties that can arise when trying to replicate not only the names used but the frequencies in which they are used. First, there may not be any statistics available on the frequency with which names were used in a given place/period. For that, there’s always general popularity data that can be appealed to, such as our discussion of some of the most popular names for men and for women. But another problem can arise even when detailed frequency data is available: You might be stuck with naming every fourth man John. Here’s where diminutive forms come in: It might be the case that 25% of medieval men in some particular time and place where called John, but if that time and place is, say, 13th-14th C Italy, you could have Johannello, Zuanutto, Vanni, and Iovenello. Even in England John can rub shoulders with Iankyn, Jenyn, Jack, and Johannet.

Stay tuned for more!


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An onomastic calendar: October

  • October 1: Edgar I was crowned King of the English in 959.
  • October 2: Athalaric, king of the Ostrogoths, died in 543.
  • October 3: Saint Francis of Assisi died in 1226.
  • October 4: Saint Theresa of Avila died in 1582
  • October 5: Alexios III of Trebizond was born in 1338.
  • October 6: Samuel Tsar of Bulgaria died in 1014.
  • October 7: Frederick I of Norway and Denmark was born in 1471.
  • October 8: Demetrius Zvonimir was crowned king of Croatia in 1076.
  • October 9: Denis, the Poet King of Portugal, was born in 1261.
  • October 10: Pope Valentine died in 827.
  • October 11: Pope Boniface died in 1303.
  • October 12: Edwin King of Northumbria was killed in battle in 632/633.
  • October 13: Eleanor, Queen of Castile, was born in 1162.
  • October 14: William the Bastard won the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
  • October 15: Pope Gregory XIII’s calendrical reform came into use in 1582.
  • October 16: Jadwiga was crowned King of Poland in 1384.
  • October 17: St. Ivo of Kermartin was born in 1253.
  • October 18: Dagobert I was crowned king of the Franks in 629.
  • October 19: St. Frideswide died in 727.
  • October 20: Henry X of Bavaria died in 1139.
  • October 21: Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Straits of Magellan in 1520.
  • October 22: Charles Martel, king of the Franks, died in 741.
  • October 23: Sweyn III of Denmark is killed in 1157.
  • October 24: (DMNES team was out of town w/o internet access).
  • October 25: Henry V of England defeated the French at Agincourt in 1415.
  • October 26: Feast day of St Demetrius of Thessaloniki, who died in 306.
  • October 27: Emperor Constantine had his Vision of the Cross in 312.
  • October 28: Margaret I of Denmark died in 1412.
  • October 29: Conradin, king of Sicily and Jerusalem, died in 1268.
  • October 30: Cesare Borgia hosted the Banquet of Chestnuts in 1501.
  • October 31: Nikephoros I became Byzantine emperor in 802.

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Color names: Silver/White/Grey

This post wraps up our series on color names for October’s monthly topic, and looks at names deriving from words for white/fair, silver, grey, and the like.

Because whiteness was strongly associated in many cultures with purity and innocence, it’s no surprise that these words gave rise to names, particularly in cultures (like Italian) that liked to give augurative names — names that express a desire for the child or child’s future.

Looking at names with elements meaning ‘white’, starting at the beginning of the alphabet, we have a masc./fem. pair Albo and Alba. These names have two possible origins: Either Old High German alb ‘elf’ or Latin albus (m.) or alba (f.) ‘white’. The masculine name Albin can either be a derivative of albus or a nickname for Albert. Looking at Latin roots, we also have a single example of Argenta, derived from an identical Latin word meaning ‘silver’.

Next is another masc./fem. pair, Blanch and Blanche. These could also be said to be of Latin origin, but Latin blancus (m.) or blanca (f.) is ultimately a borrowing of Old High Grman blanc(h) ‘white, pale’. This word also occurs in compound names, such as the amazingly beautiful Blanchefleur ‘white flower’.

The next set of names are Celtic in origin, deriving from Old Welsh gwyn (m.) or gwen (f.) ‘white, fair, blessed’. The Welsh roots of the name Gavin are disputed, but the second element may be gwyn. The feminine form gwen is quite common in Welsh names, both as a standalone name and as a part of compounds such as Gwenllian, Madwen, and Winifred. And the origins of the Arthurian heroine name Guinevere go all the way back to the Proto-Celtic root *windo. The same Proto-Celtic root gave rise to a Germanic tribal name, for the Wends. Tribal names are an interesting subset of elements that show up in dithematic Germanic names, and while words for the Wends were not as common as those for the Goths, they still show their traces in the names Wintbert and Wintbald.

Finally, we have the Old English word for ‘white’, hwīt, which was used in compounds such as Whitehelm as well as a standalone name or as a nickname of any of the compounds using hwīt.

The ‘grey’ names are of interest for two reasons; first, because we covered some of them already in the post on Color Names: Brown, as the root of the element brun has aspects of both brown and grey in its meaning; second, because looking beyond those we have only uncertain hypotheses. Despite its familiarity, the origins of the name Caesar are not entirely known. One folk etymology offered in the late Antique Historia Augusta is that it derives from Latin oculis caesiis ‘grey eyes’. And the origin of the fem. name Griselda is often connected with Proto-Germanic *grēwaz ‘grey’, but there is no clear evidence that this name was used in Germanic contexts, or for any other name which uses *grēwaz as a prototheme or deuterotheme.

We hope you enjoyed our first monthly theme! Next month, in conjunction with National Novel Writing Month we will look at ways in which you can improve your character naming practices when writing historical fiction.

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Color names: Black

We’ve made our way through the rainbow, but there are still two colors left. In this post, we look at names deriving from various medieval words for ‘black’ or ‘dark’.

In terms of words directly meaning ‘black’ or ‘blackness’, we have examples from Latin, Greek, and Gaelic which gave rise to names.

Latin nigellus is a diminutive of niger ‘black’. Nigellus, Nigel, and variants have a complicated relationship with the Gaelic name Niall (both found in English as Neil), and we have not completed the entry for this name — look for it in a future edition!

Greek μελανία ‘darkness, blackness’ is recognizable as a modern name, Melanie. The name was used only rarely medievally.

Old Irish dub ‘black’ was more commonly used as a nickname, but people familiar with Shakespeare’s famous Scottish play will be familiar with a name that uses that word: Macduff, which literally means ‘son of the black [man]’.

Looking beyond just ‘black’, Latin also has a number of words referring to darkness with respect to skin color or complexion, many of which gave rise to names.

The Latin word Maurus originally referred to an inhabitant of Mauritania or North Africa more generally, but due to the complexion of these inhabitants, the word developed a secondary sense of ‘dark brown, black’ by the post-classical period. [1] Mauro and its derivative Maurice (from Latin Mauritius ‘Moorish’, Mauritanian’) were found throughout Europe.

Another Latin word which originally referred to something other than a color and then developed a transferred meaning of ‘dark-colored, swarthy’ is aquila ‘eagle’. Aquila was used as a masculine name, and a diminutive form, Aquilina as a (relatively rare, early) feminine name.

Lastly, for this post, is the name Fuscian, deriving from Latin fuscus ‘dark, swarthy’, the name of an early saint.


[1] “Moor, n.2.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 21 October 2015.

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