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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