Monthly topic: Medieval roots of modern names, part 1

Though we may be all about the medieval names at DMNES central, this is, for most of us, because we are interested in names in general, medieval or modern. So it should be no surprise that one of the highlights of the onomastic year is when the US Social Security releases their baby name data for the previous year. These lists are always a curious mix of the eminently traditional and the bizarrely modern, and there is little way to predict where a name will occur in the list on the basis of which of these two camps it most falls in. We thought we’d spend time this month looking at the names in the top 1000 and tracing back their origins. Are the new-fangled ones as new as they seem? What are some variations people could consider if they want a different twist on an old-fashioned name?

We’ll start in this post with the top 10 boy’s names:

  1. Noah: Number one name Noah is part of a venerable tradition of taking names from the Bible, but as we’ve discussed before. The name was used rarely in medieval England due to the mystery plays, but only became popular at the end of the 16th C.
  2. Liam: Liam is one of those name which is not medieval but derives from medieval origins. It is a diminutive of Uilliam, the Gaelic form of William which was in use since the Anglo-Normans invaded in the 12th century. However, the truncated form didn’t arise until after the 16th C was over.
  3. Mason: Originally an occupational byname, this derives from Old French maçon, masson ‘mason’.
  4. Jacob: This name and number seven below have, even more than Noah, a venerable history of use. Jacob can be found throughout Europe, while James is a distinctly English form of the name, even though in origin it derives from the Latinized French form Jacomus, which became Jacme in the vernacular.
  5. William: This is one of the few names of Germanic origin that not only didn’t fall out of use over the course of the 11th and 12th C, but became, if anything more popular. From William to Guillaume to Wilhelm to Guglielmo, the name adapted itself depending on the vernacular in which it was used. It also gave rise to a plethora of nicknames, including recognizably-modern ones like Will to unusual forms like Willick, Willeke, Wilquin, and Guilemon.
  6. Ethan: This Biblical name has always been more popular in the US than elsewhere, due to the fame of the Revolutionary hero Ethan Allen. We don’t yet any examples of the name, but given the trend for adopting obscure Biblical names that we’ve documented before, we would not be surprised to find some post-1550 examples in French, English, or Dutch.
  7. James: While James may be a distinctly English form of the name, it still has equal right to be called a Biblical name: This is how Jacob’s name was spelled in the Wycliffite translation of the Bible into English from 1395.
  8. Alexander: Another name which has been a classic for millenia, ever since one of the greatest military figures the world has ever seen swept onto the stage. The etymological origin of the name, deriving from Greek elements meaning ‘I defend’ and ‘mankind’, has also contributed to the popularity of the name. Medieval nicknames tend to differ from the standard modern Alex, with Sander, <Sanders, Zander, Sandry, Saßa, and Sandrin found in German, Dutch, English, French, and other contexts.
  9. Michael: Another name of Biblical origin. This name was popular throughout Europe, and, interestingly, it was so without having been the name of a pope, other major religious figure, or a king.
  10. Benjamin: Like Noah, Benjamin is an Old Testament name whose common use dates to the 16th C.
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2 Comments

Filed under dictionary entries, monthly topic

2 responses to “Monthly topic: Medieval roots of modern names, part 1

  1. Pingback: Medieval roots of modern names: The feminine US top 10 | Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources

  2. Pingback: Medieval roots of modern names: The US 2015 top 11-25 for boys | Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources

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