Nature names: Trees, forests, and woods

Nature names are a popular choice of names in contemporary Anglo naming practices, so we thought it would be interesting to see what sort of nature names can be found in medieval Europe. The answer is “Not many” — of all the inspirations that there were for coining or constructing new names in the Middle Ages, the option of taking as a name some nature-related word was very rarely exercised.

In this post, we look at names deriving from elements related to trees, forests, woods, etc.

Romance

Masc. Sylvius and fem. Sylvia derive from the Latin word silva ‘woodland, forest’. From this word we also have the masc./fem. pair Sylvester and Sylvestra.

The other class of forest/tree/wood names deriving from Latin origins are those which are the names of specific types of trees. Laurence and Laurencia both derive from a Roman cognomen itself derived from Latin laurus ‘laurel, bay-tree’. The masc./fem. pair Palm and Palma derive from Latin palma, which can either refer to the palm of the hand or to the branch of a palm tree. This name became popular in the Middle Ages as a name for people born or christened on Palm Sunday. The final tree-type name that we have instances of was also influenced, in its use, by its significance to Christianity, namely, Olive, from Latin oliva ‘olive tree’. (It is often hypothesized that Oliver also derives from this word; but in truth, the origin of this name is uncertain.)

Germanic

Old Saxon widu, wido,Old High German witu ‘wood, woods, forest’ was moderately common in compound names, both masculine and feminine. In men’s names, it’s almost exclusively used as a prototheme, as illustrated in the names Guiart, Guither, Witugis, and Wedekind; the one exception is the simplex name Guy.

In contrast, our only example of the element in women’s names is as a deuterotheme, in the names Alvice, Ansois, Eloise, Hawise, Herois, and Hildois.

The Old Icelandic cognate viðr can be found in the name Arvid.

Hybrid

The final name is a curious one. Modern French bois ‘woodland, woods’ can be traced back to Old French bois, from Latin boscus, but a Latin origin is not enough to put this element under the ‘Romance’ category; for boscus is actually a vulgar Latin development, a Latinization of Frankish busc or busk, and this Frankish word in turn developed from Proto-Germanic buskaz ‘bush, thicket’. So it can be considered as either a Romance element or a Germanic one!

The name we have that includes this element is itself a curious one, because it was not a given name in origin. Tallboys was originally a French nickname for a wood-cutter, or anyone who cuts wood; but in the 16th century in England, there developed a pattern of using surnames as given names (no, this isn’t a modern naming pattern as some people might think!). We have one example of Tallboys used as a given name, and it occurs in England.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Nature names: Trees, forests, and woods

  1. It’s not in the Dictionary (yet?), but in the Irish Annals is the masculine given name Ros, Ross, or Rosa, which could be from meaning either “wood” or “promontory/headland”, or , from Latin “rosa” = “rose”.

    appears as a feminine given name, most likely from rós < Lat. rosa.

    • Not yet! And we also haven’t finalized the entry on the fem. name “Rose”, because tracking the development of ‘hros’ (= ‘horse’) into Rose and the relationship between this and Rohese/Roesia is proving complicated. 🙂

      • As a technical point, it may not be possible to definitively say this form came from this source, and that form came from that one. Especially once the two forms merge and become variants of each other. I suspect the only answer then would be to just keep all the forms together and give both etymologies.

        (This is me teaching methods for protein extraction from eggs to an elderly female relative.)

      • Absolutely, and you can find plenty of entries in the Dictionary already that discuss multiple possibly etymologies that all gave rise to the same name (cf., e.g., the entry for Geoffrey).

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