Medieval roots of modern names: The US 2015 top 51-100 for boys

At this rate, we’re probably going to only make it through the top 100 before the month is out. One thing that has been interesting about each group of names that we’ve looked at is how consistent the relative popularities of different name types have been, with Biblical names being the most common amongst the boys’, and relatively unrepresented amongst the girls. We’ll see that trend continue as we move down to the top 51-100 of the boy’s names, and thus even if we don’t investigate any further, we would not be surprised to see this trend trickle even further down the list. But let’s see what else we can find!

As we noted, the Biblical again dominate this group, but this time we start to see the influence of non-English spellings on American names. Firs we have two variants of John: Evan (67), a medieval Welsh form, and Ian (76), modernly generally treated as a Scottish form but medievally actually found in the Low Countries, Germany, and Eastern Eruope. Then we have two Spanish forms: Jose (80) and Mateo (85) (this is, of course, also an Italian form!). Amongst the standard English forms of the names we have but two New Testament names — Thomas (no. 51) Nathaniel (97) — compared to a wide range of Old Testament names: Aaron (52); Eli (53); Jeremiah (55); Josiah (57); Jordan (60); Adam (73); Asher (83); Zachary (88); Ezra (92); and Elias (100).

Of these names, a few deserve extra note. First, neither Jeremiah nor Josiah are typical medieval spellings: before 1600, both were more commonly spelled with the Greek influenced form -ias. This is exactly where Elias (as opposed to Elijah) comes from, and if you check out the variants of Zachary, you’ll find -ias forms there as well. Second, we lack entries for Eli, Ezra, and Asher: This is a reflection of the fact that these names were rarely used by Christians until the 17th C, being more commonly used by Jews — and so far, our coverage has a distinct dearth of Jewish records. Third, it is debatable whether Jordan should be considered in this list. Certainly, most people associate the name with the Biblical river Jordan. And this association is ancient and honorable: The name was popular in the Middle Ages particularly amongst those who had been on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and brought back water from the Jordan River to baptise their children. However, it is unlikely that this was the original root of the name; instead, the root appears to be an Old German name Jordanes. (The complications surrounding the name are why we don’t yet have an entry for it, despite the fact that we have examples from England, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, from the 11th C to the 16th!)

We then have a slew of given names that were not originally given names, but surnames — and if we collect all four groups, locative, occupational, patronymic, and descriptive, together, they outnumber the Biblical names. The place names are almost all English in origin: Colton (59), Brayden (61), Lincoln (66), Easton (78), Brandon (82), and Bentley (93). The one exception is Xavier (90), an Old Spanish form of a Basque place name deriving from etxe berri ‘new house’ or ‘new home’. The occupationals are all medieval English: a Parker (72) maintained a park or game preserve; Chase (74) was a name for a hunter, someone who chases; a Cooper (77) made barrels while a Tyler (81) lay tiles and a Sawyer (94) sawed wood. A Ryder (98) is one who rides out, and this specific spelling is not modern, but can be found in the 16th C. In our patronymics group we have already seen a variant of Jaxson (84) in an earlier post. Hudson (65) is ‘son of Hudd‘ — a pet form of either Hugh or Richard. Nolan (71) could also be put under the “Irish” heading below: It derives from the Irish clan byname Ó Nualláin, which in turn derives from Irish nuall ‘noble, famous’. There are two descriptive: Cameron (56), from Irish camshron ‘bent nose’ and Blake (96), which has two equally plausible, and contradictory origins: It can be from both Old English blǣċ ‘pale, bright, shining’ and blæc ‘black, dark’. Finally we have Carson (89), a Scottish surname of uncertain origin. Early forms include Carsan, Acarson, and Corsan, and it may have been originally a place name.

The next biggest groups are the names of Greek and Latin origin. For the former, there is Nicholas (62), popular throughout Europe; Angel (64), concentrated in Italy and Iberia; Jason (86) and its nickname Jace (75), which we could also place in the Biblical names category above, and if we had any medieval examples of the name we probably would have — modernly, the Greek hero rather than the obscure New Testament character is the more likely root of the name; and Theodore (99), a rare name medievally and one easily confused with forms of Theodoric. In the second group, we have the imperial Adrian (58), especially popular in the Low Countries; lordly Dominic (68), also spread throughout Europe; saintly Austin (69), this form an English contraction of the larger Augustine; and Leo (91), which is equally derivable from the Latin and the Greek.

This leaves us with six names, half of which are Irish: Connor (54) is an English form of the Irish name Conchobhar, which was popular in Ireland from the 8th to the 16th C; Kevin (79) is an English form of the early Irish saint’s name Cáemgen used in the 6th and 7th C. The name was not otherwise used, until it was revived in the modern period, but the place name Caisleáin Caoimhghin was recorded in English in a variety of spellings throughout the Middle ages, including Castelkevyn in 1308 and 1547, Castle Kevin in 1590, Castlekevin in 1542, and Castrum Kevini in 1343; and Ayden (87) is a variant of Aiden, which we’ve discussed earlier in this series.

What is most surprising about this group of names is that we have but one name of German: Robert (63), which had held sway for centuries as one of the most popular names. We also have a name of Welsh that we discussed in detail a few months ago as part of our Arthurian names series: Gavin (70). Last in the group we have one name which is purely modern: Kayden (95). The most tenuous connection that we can make from this name to the Middle Ages is via the Scottish surname Cadenhead, originally the name of a place at the head of the Caldon or Cadon Water in Selkirkshire. But this is at best a retrospective connection.

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One response to “Medieval roots of modern names: The US 2015 top 51-100 for boys

  1. Ioanna

    In Greek, the Jordan River is used with masculine pronouns and is called Ιορδάνης/Jordanes. It’s possible that this is where Jordanes comes from, in the same vein that Ιωάννης/Ioannes becomes Johannes in German.

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