Masc/Fem names: gendered themes in dithematic names

A short and busy month is drawing to a close, but we still have time for one more post on this month’s monthly topic!

We started off the month acknowledging the ubiquity of feminine forms of masculine names, many of which are dithematic (compound) names of Germanic or Scandinavian origin, where the feminine and masculine forms differ solely on the basis of their Latinate ending. One conclusion that we can draw from this is that in the construction of these names — which are drawn from pools of protothemes (first elements) and deuterothemes (second elements) — there is a significant overlapping in the pools of elements. In this post we look at the opposite phenomenon: Are there any themes that are uniquely used by men or uniquely used by women? Does it make a difference whether they are used as protothemes or deuterothemes? Can we draw any conclusion from the meaning of a theme to whether it’s likely to be used purely by women or purely by men? Let’s find out!

The Dictionary currently has a glossary of 300 elements which are found in dithematic names, the vast majority of which are Germanic in origin (the Slavic and Celtic themes make up a small percentage, and there are vanishingly few themes of Latin origin). In some cases, we simply don’t have enough examples of names involving particular themes to draw any conclusions about whether they were used solely for one gender or another, so what follows are merely observations rather than conclusions.

Old Saxon and Old High German bero ‘bear’ was used as a prototheme by both men and women, in names such as Bernard and Bernarde, Berengar and Berengaria, etc., but so far, our only examples of the name as a deuterotheme come from masculine names, such as Everbern, Gerbern (the same origin as Berengar, just with the themes reversed!), and Gisbern.

Despite numerous masculine names with Old High German or Old Icelandic brant ‘fire, brand’ as a deuterotheme (Aldebrand, Albrand, Gerbrand, Gumbrand, Herbrand, Hildebrand, Liutbrand, Theobrand, Ulbrand, Wilbrand, and Wulfbrand), we do not yet have any feminine name using this deuterotheme. The name Brenda is often derived from this element, but our single example of this name is from 14th C Italy, and a Germanic origin is not especially likely.

One of the clearest case of ‘gendered’ deuterothemes is the theme which is often spelled modernly -trude, as in the name Gertrude. This theme can derive from either Proto-Germanic *þrūþ ‘strength’ or Proto-Germanic *trut ‘maiden’, and in the case of feminine names, it is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to tell which is the origin. It was quite a popular deuterotheme in women’s names (Acletrude, Adaltrude, Agintrude, Aldetrude, Altrude, Amaltrude, Arntrude, Erchamtrude, Ermentrude, Falatrude, Framtrude, Gautrude, Giseltrude, Gertrude, Hildetrude, Ingaltrude, Ingitrude, Landetrude, Nadaltrude, Ratrude, Rectrude, Reintrude, Walantrude, Wandetrude, Weltrude, Wiseltrude, and Wulftrude), but is only ever found as a prototheme in men’s names, where the *þrūþ origin must be favored.

Having seen the popularity in feminine names of an element that may derive from the word for ‘maiden’, the next two gendered themes shouldn’t be surprising: Old Saxon, Old Dutch, Old Frisian wīf ‘wife, woman’ appears only in feminine names (our two so far are Bernewif, to appear in the next edition, and Hetelwif), and the same is true of Old English cwen ‘woman, wife; queen’ (which can be found in the name Queniva, to appear in the next edition). On the masculine side of things, Old English eorl, Old Saxon erl ‘earl, man’ appears only in masculine names (cf. Herluin), while Old High German karl, Old English ceorl was used as a standalone name rather than a part of compounds, and Old High German man, Old English mann ‘man’ is only found as deuterothemes only in masculine names. Interestingly, we have one example of the former used as a feminine prototheme, in the name Manswith.

How about other meanings? There may be themes which one might specifically associate with one gender over the other on the basis of their meaning, even if that meaning is not directly identical with a gender. We look at such examples now; they are rarer than one might think. The only theme which is specifically associated with a particular gender which has a meaning that is more often associated with women than men is Proto-Germanic *linþaz ‘gentle, sweet, mild’ (found in Aclinde, Adalinde, Belelinde, Erlinde, Frotlinde, Gautlinde, Gerlinde, Godelinde, Hadelinde, Idelinde, Madalinde, Richlinde, and Theodelinde). On the masculine side, Proto-Germanic *mērijaz ‘famous’ is well attested, but only in men’s names. On the other hand themes such as Old High German hold ‘comely, graceful’, which one might expect to be more closely tied to women’s names, have nearly equal numbers of men’s names as women’s names using this element, both as a prototheme and as a deuterotheme. Likewise, one might expect to find words for ‘war’, ‘battle’, or ‘warrior’, but Old High German gund, Old Icelandic gunnr, guðr ‘war, battle’ were used in names of both genders, while Old English hild, Old Icelandic hildr ‘battle’, and Old High German hiltja ‘battle’ is most commonly used as a prototheme in masculine names and as a deuterotheme in feminine names.

Thus, about as far as one can go in terms of determining gender on the basis of the meaning of one of the elements is that if one of the words specifically names a particular gender, and that word is used as a deuterotheme, then the gender of the name will match the gender picked out. But even slight extrapolations are not tenable: When these words are used as protothemes, there is no guarantee of a match. Further, while in rare cases there may be themes which are uniquely used by one gender only, where the meaning is something one would more commonly associate with that gender over the other, the meaning alone cannot be taken as a guide to gender.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Masc/Fem names: gendered themes in dithematic names

  1. Jörg Knappen

    On the name element “hold”: (h)old originates from wald “to rule”, only in later times it was confused with the word hold.

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