Every day is Christmas when you’re an onomast

Sometimes, when I stop and think about the scale of our undertaking, it can seem a bit daunting. EVERY name from EVERY European document for more than 1000 years? 1000 editorial assistants working 1000 years wouldn’t be enough, if you think about it rationally.

So the easiest thing to do is don’t (think about it rationally, that is). We know this is a big project, and one that will hopefully outlive us. And in the meantime, one way to make incremental steps towards breadth of coverage — rather than the depth that we could get if we, say, concentrated on 16th C English parish registers — is by keeping many pots on the stove at once, that is, working on multiple sources at once. Each editorial assistant can choose what and how many projects to have on hand at the same time, with some choosing to keep to their onomastic specialities (such as Hungarian) or to a culturally-linked but relatively under-developed area in terms of medieval onomastic research (such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland), while others of us simply flit from source to source as new possibilities become available.

One result of this tactic is that you never know what you are going to find. Those of you who follow us on Twitter know that last week thanks to a Cambridge University Press booksale we came away with 19 volumes from their “Cambridge Library Collection” on the cheap. One of them, Historic and Municipal Documents of Ireland, A.D. 1172-1320, caught my eye because we have had some people complain (with justification) that our current coverage of Ireland is quite minimal. (It’s not nonexistent, but currently we have Irish citations in only five entries, Henry, Laurence, Ralph, Robert, and William, none of which, the astute reader will note, are especially Irish.) Tonight I sat down to flip through it, and item III is a late 12th C document headed “Dublin Roll of Names” — 45 pages of them. Most of them are distinctly Anglo-Irish in origin, but casual flipping shows a little bit of the underlying Gaelic substrate peaking through, such as an occurrence of Padin, a Gaelic diminutive of Patrick; Gillafinean, a form of Gaelic Gilla Finnén; and Galgethel, at the moment unfamiliar but almost certainly to be Gaelic in origin. 45 pages of names from Dublin? It’s like Christmas has come three months early.

In addition to systematically working our way through sources transcribing names, we also often do individual consultations for people who are looking for further information about the use of a particular name, and these searches often serendipitously lead to gems. The other day, while searching for examples of Ava which were not diminutives, we found a mid-11th C charter from Ghent with the most lovely list of women and their daughters, some familiar, some distinctly unusual:

Ermengardis, Emma, Tisvidis, Ava, Ermentrudis, Memlendis, Lulend, Badin, Nodelend, Bivin, Bernewif

This afternoon, speculation on Facebook about how an early 9th C Frankish woman could’ve ended up with the given name Suspecta lead us to return to the original source to look up the names of her family members, which include father Teutfredusb (Theodefrid, mother Fulca (entry available in the next edition, s.n. Fulka), and siblings Seats (obscure, in both origin and gender), Teodarus (Theodeher), Gisledrudis (entry available in the next edition, s.n. Giseltrude), and Teodara (entry available in the next edition, s.n. Theodara).

I’ve been studying names in some form or another for more than two decades, and the thrill of finding an onomastic gem never fades. The Dictionary is, to some extent, merely an excuse to go on finding them.

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