Color names: Red

In this, our first post on our monthly topic of color names, we look at names deriving from words for ‘red’.

Old High German rōt, Old Saxon rōd ‘red’ is occurs as a prototheme in a handful of Germanic names, including Rothard and Rothward.

Two Latin words meaning ‘red’ both gave rise to names: Latin rubeus (the same root as the English word ‘ruby’) was used as a masculine given name in Italy, while russa was occasionally used as a feminine name.

One interesting pair of names derive from a word referring to a bright red tincture, while the root of that word is in fact a Latin word meaning ‘little worm’: Vermilia and Vermilius come from Old French vermeillon ‘vermillion, bright red’, because of the bright red dye or paint that could be made from the small insect Kermes vermilio (note that the other word in the Latin name, kermes is cognate to the word ‘crimson’!)

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Publication of Edition 2015, no. 3

We’re pleased to announce the publication of Edition 2015, no. 3 of the Dictionary, the last edition planned for this year. The new addition has over 1700 entries (up from 1359 in the previous edition), with over 35,900 citations (more than 8,000 more than the previous edition). There are 633 feminine names and 1083 masculine names, and two of uncertain gender. This edition broadens our coverage to the following regions/countries: Ireland, Portugal, Brittany, Wales, Lithuania, Ukraine, and substantially deepens our coverage of the following countries: Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, Estonia, Finland (as well as having new citations for Italy, Germany, France, England, etc.).

Come, spend a few minutes browsing, maybe you’ll find a new favorite name, such as Belhonor or Frotbald or Llywellyn, Wistrilde or revisit old favorites to see what new and unusual spellings you can find.

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New blog feature: monthly topics!

With the third edition just about ready for release, containing over 1700 entries and more than 35500 citations, we’d like to start exploring some of the data a bit further here on the blog. We’ll pick a topic each month, and dedicate a number of posts during the month to that topic. Sometimes it’ll be something lighthearted and fun, sometimes we’ll address more in-depth research questions, but whatever the topic, our goal is to bring more exposure to some of the lesser known or studied data we have.

We’re going to start off October with a topic of interest to those looking for unusual and different possibilities for modern names while sticking to a pattern that is familiar: Colors! What color terms appear in medieval given names? What languages do those terms come from? Are they more common for men’s names or women’s names? Check back over the course of the month to find out!

Next month we’ll dovetail with National Novel Writing Month by posting advice on choosing names for characters in historical fiction. We even have a few guest posters lined up!

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An onomastic calendar: September

Earlier this month over on Twitter, we started an #OnThisDay series, which every day highlights an individual associated with an important medieval event and gives a link to the relevant Dictionary entry for that person’s given name. Here’s a summary of the September onomastic calendar:

  • September 22: Anne of Cleves, future wife of Henry VIII, was born in 1515.
  • September 23: Yolande of Valois was born in 1434.
  • September 24: Ralph de Stafford was born in 1301.
  • September 25: Louis III of Naples was born in 1403.
  • September 26: William II of England was crowned king in 1087.
  • September 27: Ermentrude, queen of the Franks, was born in 823.
  • September 28: Gertrude, queen of Hungary, was murdered in 1213.
  • September 29: Margaret, queen of Scots, was born in 1240.
  • September 30: Yaroslav II, grand prince of Vladimir, died in 1246.

We’ll do a similar summary at the end of each month.

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The “most popular” names, for men

Last week we investigated the ‘most popular’ medieval names for women, including a long discursus on why the scare quotes. All the same caveats hold when we turn to look at the men’s names: Without access to systematic data that counts individuals only once and provides the same level of coverage in every place and time, there is no way to say definitively what the most popular medieval given names were.

Unsurprisingly, the list of men’s names that I review on a daily basis because I can pretty much guarantee some editorial assistant has added new citations of is longer than the list of women’s name. And many of the names on it will strike few as surprising (though I personally find it interesting how they cluster into pairs or triples in terms of the letter they start with, and how weighted towards the end of the alphabet they are):

These names have remained enduringly popular, with all of them showing up in, e.g., the top 100 of the Top Names Over the Last 100 Years in the US (John: 2; Robert, 3; William, 5; Richard: 7; Charles, 9; Thomas, 10; Paul: 17; Jacob: 34; Henry: 52; Peter: 55; Walter, 57; Roger, 66; Philip, ; 94note that since this counts individual variant spellings, rather than combining all variants together, this list separates Jacob from James, which comes in at no. 1).

But others on the list may be more surprising — names that have fallen out of common use, or which while still familiar nowadays may not strike one as especially typical of the Middle Ages. These names are:

Of these, the two that I found the most surprising — the ones I hadn’t really realized were as popular as they are until we started compiling such a huge corpus — are Louis and Theodoric. Louis, from its early Latinized form Hludowicus to its modern forms such as Louis, Lewis, Lodovico, Ludwig, and Luis, was an amazingly productive name, showing up in all cultures touched by the Carolingian empire, and, later, France (there being more medieval French kings named Louis than any other name). The popularity of Theodoric can be traced back to Theoderic the Great, ruler of the Ostrogoths at the fall of the western Roman empire. His deeds entered legend, and his name spread across Europe, spawing many variants and diminutives: In fact, more distinct spellings of this name are recorded than any other name we have catalogued so far (and that includes John!). In French, it became T(h)ierry; in Dutch, Derek and Dirk; in High German, Dietrich; in Low German, Diderik. The range of diminutive forms includes examples that a non-expert would scoff at as related: Who would think that Thidemann, Dytlin, Dietz, Tile, Tous, Tijdeke, and Thierrion are all nicknames of the same name?

All of these entries are already quite diverse in the citations they include, but will only become more so in the future. Mark your calendars, we are one week away from the publication of the next edition (our final one of 2015)!

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Finding the needle in the haystack

One of the exciting parts about working on this project is the potential it opens up to redefine our knowledge of medieval onomastics, to force us to question origins and etymologies, to find evidence that rejects the received view of certain names.

I have been working on a brief article which will do just that — present new evidence which will force us to revise our views about the origins and historicity of certain names. I don’t want to go into too much detail before the paper has been peer-reviewed and published, but I can share a portion of the story that got us to this point, including a new chapter in the story that unfolded this afternoon.

A few months ago, I found a reference to a name which is one that every baby name book will give you the same origin for — it’s a post-medieval literary invention. So when I found a Latin charter from Germany written in 1256 with an instance of this name, you can be sure I got very excited! But the excitement was tempered with the possibility that my source contained an error, and that the supposed citation for this name was not. The only way to be sure would be to check the original manuscript. So began the process of finding out where the manuscript is located, if, indeed, it is still extant.

The charter occurs in a 19th C edition of charters related to the Teutonic Knights in and around Cologne. Many of the charters in this edition were hand transcribed by the editor, and a list of the original manuscripts consulted is provided at the end of the book. Some, however, the editor took from an earlier edition compiled by someone else, and the charter in question, charter 158, was one such. The source list simply said:

157-160. Gud. 4, 886-888. 2, 440.

The introduction informed me that “Gud.” was an abbreviation for “Gudenus”, and various other searches (many thanks to WorldCat), I determined the Gudenus in question was Valentin Ferdinand von Gudenus, who turns out to have been a very prolific collector and editor of charters in the 18th C. Very prolific. All I knew was that mine occurred in the fourth volume of one of them, without knowing which. And thus began the laborious task of finding every book by Gudenus that I could, and searching for charters from the right date — a true needle in the haystack task, but without even knowing which haystack to look in!

Well, just a little bit ago, I found not only the haystack, but I found the needle. Hennes’s transcription of Gudenus is not in error; Gudenus has the name in the same spelling — BUT with a marginal note that Hennes did not retain. The note? “indubie corrupt.” (undoubtedly corrupted). This is not exactly the news I hoped to find, but it provides a further clue to the story. Next up: Finding out if Gudenus tells us which manuscript he consulted, and then trying to trace it forward 250 years to the present day. The story is not over yet.

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The “most popular” names, for women

One of the highlights of the onomastic year is when various governments publish name popularity data for babies born in the previous year (such as the US Social Security data and the registries for England and Wales). There is something about finding out which name occupies the no. 1 spot, and obtaining another data point in a trend. Is the name becoming more popular? Is it becoming less? Can we predict what the next top-10 names will be? Which names are destined for obscurity? What makes a name like Gary seem dated?

With few exceptions [1], it is sort of popularity/trend data is difficult to come by for medieval names. In any given collection of documents, it can be impossible, sometimes, to tell when the same person is being mentioned more than once, thus making individual occurrences of a name a poor guide to the name’s popularity. (It is for this reason that we include usage info in our entries; otherwise, one might think that, e.g., Innocent was a far more popular name than it actually was.) On the other hand, even factoring in the same person being referred to on multiple occasions, or the skewing introduced by kings, saints, and popes bearing a particular name, it is still possible to get a sense of which names, overall, are more popular than others (John, we’re looking at you), and which names were rare (one single 9th C example of Ermengaude: Not a popular name).

Because new citations are entered into the database on an ongoing basis, the process of reviewing them and marking them for inclusion in an upcoming edition is also ongoing. To facilitate this, we have a script which looks at all of the entries marked as “live”, and then returns a list of those which have unreviewed citations in them. On a daily basis we run the script and review (a portion of) the entries it returns, usually between 150 and 250. We programmed this script so that when we have a new citation of a relatively rare name, we are alerted to this without having to find it by hand. On the other hand, there are certain names which one hardly needs this script to find, for they are the ones that, on the whole, are likely to have new citations every time we sit down to review for inclusion. This names, by some qualitative rather than quantitative measure, are the “most popular” ones — the ones which have the broadest spread over language, geography, and time, which come in many spelling variants or with many diminutive forms. Most of them are ones you’d expect; a few of them are perhaps unexpected — at least, they probably don’t spring to mind if you asked yourself “What are the top 10-20 medieval given names?”

So, what are these popular names? We’ll discuss the women’s names in this post, and men’s names in an upcoming post. For women, there are seven names that I check on a daily basis, regardless of whether I am working in that part of the alphabet that day or not. They are:

If I wanted to round this list out to a nice ten, I’d add Agnes, Cecilia, and Mary, though on the whole these names are not as popular as the others.


[1] English parish registers from the 16th C are one. Because of the detailed birth/christening info they provide over a multi-decade span, it is possible to do trend analyses of name popularity. Scott Smith-Bannister, Names and Naming Patterns in England 1538-1700 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997) is an excellent example of this, for those who are interested.


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