Category Archives: monthly topic

Medieval roots of modern names: The US 2015 top 26-50 for girls

Just as the top 26-50 boy’s names continued the strong showing of Biblical names, the girl’s top 26-50 continue the trend of being much more diverse in origin. In fact, we will see in this a handful of names which do not have any medieval European origins at all.

The biggest class of names in this group are those of Latin origin. Natalie (no. 27) derives from Latin natalis ‘of, related to birth’. Its use as a name comes from the phrase dies natalis ‘day of birth’, i.e., Christmas day, the day of the birth of Christ. The name was thus used for pepole who were born or baptised on or near Christmas day. It was never a common name, medievally. Aria (no. 29) is identical with a Latin word for ‘open space, park; courtyard; empty space’; while we haven’t found any conclusive examples of this word being used as a medieval name, there was a masculine St Ario and a related Latin feminine name Arria, which was used in the classical Roman era and also in early France. Camila (no. 43) is a variant of Camilla, the feminine form of a Latin cognomen, which was used in 16th C Italy. Claire (no. 49) is a French form of Latin clara ‘clear, bright, shining’, the name of an influential 13th C saint. The name was not much used before the 13th C, but the saint’s importance caused it to spread throughout Europe in the 14th and 15th C. Violet (no. 50) is another Latin name by way of French: it adds the French diminutive -et to Latin viola, the name of type of flower. The name was moderately popular in Scotland in the 16th C.

Next up are the names of Greek origin. The root of the name Alexa (no. 32) is the same as the prototheme of Alexander but while the masculine name was quite popular, the feminine variants are much more rare. While researching this post, we found our first example, from early 16th C Barcelona. Look for an entry on this name in an upcoming edition! We saw a variant spelling of Zoe (no. 33) in the previous post on women’s names; this spelling is the more typical spelling. Penelope (no. 34) came into use in the Middle Ages due to the fad for adopting names of classic mythology from the 16th C. Ariana (no. 46) is, strictly speaking, an Italian form of a Greek name (Ariadne). It’s a difficult name to determine if it was used medievally, since the Latin word Ariana was used not as a name but as an adjective to describe a woman as adhering to the Arian heresy! To date, we have no clear evidence that Ariana was used as a given name in the Middle Ages.

We have more Biblical names in this group than in the previous one, but still not as many as in the comparable boy’s group. The first, Lillian (no. 26) is included in the group because it is, originally, a diminutive of Lily which was itself, medievally, a nickname of Elizabeth and not related to the flower name. Hannah (no. 28) is a common modern variant of Hebrew Anna, but the aspiration of the initial vowel and the addition of the extra -h at the end was quite a late development, with Anna (no. 44), the standard Latin form, being far more common. Leah (no. 36) is a curious name: Given it’s context as the name of a relatively important Old Testament character, one would expect to find examples of it used amongst the Protestants. So far, we have not yet found any, and Withycombe s.n. Leah indicates that the name came into use in the 17th C.

In this group of names, we have our first Arabic names! One of them, has a long history of use in Europe: Layla (no. 30) was found in Arabic records in al-Andalus (Andalucia) between 700 an 1200. These same records don’t include Aaliyah (no. 48), so we are uncertain about its use in Arabic contexts in Europe.

The remaining names are rather eclectic. There are two names of Germanic origin: Allison (no. 39) is an English and French diminutive of Alice, deriving from Adelaidis while Skylar (no. 42) is not a given name at all, in origin. It is a phonetic rendering of Dutch schuyler ‘scholar’, used as a descriptive byname in the Middle Ages. Then we have two names which were originally place names: Brooklyn (no. 31) is like Skylar, a phonetic rendition of an originally Dutch place name, Breukelen. Paisley (no. 45) is a place in Scotland, which in the 18th C gave its name to the distinctive Persian textile pattern that was produced there. Two further names are best classed as miscellaneous: Nora (no. 41) can be a diminutive of a variety of names, including Eleanora, Honora, Dianora, or even perhaps Gunnora. Ellie (no. 47) too can be a diminutive of Eleanora, but also of Ellen.

Finally, we have one name of Irish origin: Riley (no. 35) is an English version of Early Modern Irish Raghallaigh, the genitive (possessive) form of Raghallach, a masculine given name used in the 13th C; one name of Old English origin: Audrey (no. 37); one name of New World origin: Savannah (no. 38), originally deriving from Taíno, the language spoken by the Taíno people of the Caribbean; and one name of modern origin: Samantha (no. 40) can be dated to the 17th C, but so far no earlier examples are known.

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Medieval roots of modern names: The US 2015 top 26-50 for boys

Moving on to nos. 26-50 on the list of top boy’s names in the US for 2015, we continue the trend of the largest category being the names of Biblical, providing a nice mix of both Old and New Testament names. First we have John (26), a name regarding which we can be surprised for finding it so low. Since the 12th century it has been, almost without fail, the most popular man’s name across Europe, and it’s only in the last few decades that it has fallen out of favor in America. Part of the reason it has dropped rankings is because of the rising popularity of variant forms and diminutives, which the US Social Security tracks separately, but which we include in a single entry. Thus, here we should also note Jack (no. 40), a diminutive which has its origins in Middle Dutch Jankin. Other names in this category include Luke (no. 28), which we saw in an earlier post in the Greek-influenced variant Lucas; Andrew (no. 30), which we could also have included under the “Greek” heading below, and which was relatively common throughout Europe; and then various Old Testament names like Isaac (no. 31), more commonly used earlier by Jews but becoming popular amongst Protestant Christians in the 16th C; Joshua (no. 33), Caleb (no. 37), Nathan (no. 38), Jonathan (no. 48), and Isaiah (no. 49), names almost unheard of before the 16th C and still rare then; and Levi (no. 42), used almost exclusively by Jews medievally.

The next most common type of name in this group are the ones deriving from medieval surnames: Hunter (no. 41), an occupational byname deriving from Old English hunta ‘hunter, huntsman’; Jaxon (no. 44), a purely modern spelling of Jackson, which we saw in an earlier post; Landon (no. 46), a French surname found (among other examples) in the early 15th C in the city of Choisy; and Grayson (no. 47), a Lancashire and Yorkshire form of Graveson ‘son of the greyve (steward)’.

Of equal number are the names of Germanic origin. Two are classics: Henry (no. 29) and Charles (no. 50), the names of kings, emperors, and saints. In particular, the eight English kings named Henry have helped ensure the popularity of this name in the English-speaking world, and Charlemagne, one of the Nine Worthies, was a well-respected figure throughout Europe. The third, however, may surprise people by occurring in this category: Wyatt (no. 34). This is an English form of French Guiart or Wiard, with W- forms being typical of Normandy and Picardy, which in turn derives from two German elements. (Despite this, the name was vastly more popular in France than anywhere else).

We next have four names, two of Greek and two of Latin origin. The Greek names are names of saints: Christopher (no. 32) and Sebastian (no. 35), both of which were used throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Finally, we have one religious and one secular Latin names: Christian (no. 43), identical in origin to the proper adjective, never extremely popular but found more often in Germanic and Scandinavian contexts; and Julian (no. 45), a name of imperial status, most common in Italy and France and found rarely elsewhere.

We’re left with a handful of origins each witnessed by one name. We have another name of Irish origin: Ryan (no. 39) is an English form of the Old Irish name Ríán, which was used during the 9th-11th C. It then fell out of use, and was revived in modern times. And in this batch of names we get our first name of Welsh origin: Dylan (no. 27) is a name found in Welsh mythology, and like many such names, we have no evidence that it was used by real people during the Middle Ages.

Finally, we have one name which is best described as complicated: Owen (no. 36). This spelling is a modern English form of a name which occurs in medieval Welsh as Owain, deriving from Old Welsh Ou(u)ein. This name is often connected with Old Welsh Eug(u)ein, explained as an adoption of Greek Eugene. The early Welsh Ou(u)ein or Eug(u)ein was the name of an Arthurian character, a son of Urien, with the result that the name was also used in French, developing into Yvain. It has been questioned, though, whether Ou(u)ein is related to Eugene — for it would make it an unusual example of a Greek name imported into Old Welsh at a very early date. It may be that the name has an independent origin, only later retro-actively connected to the Greek name. Hence, as we said, it’s complicated!

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Medieval roots of modern names: The US 2015 top 11-25 for girls

While nos. 11-25 of the boy’s names were dominated by names of Biblical origin, the story is very different — and much more eclectic — for girl’s names. In nos. 11-25, we have but one name of Biblical origin — but it shows up in two varieties. Elizabeth (no. 13) has long been a classic, coming to dominance in the 13th C (though it was used before then) and never really falling out. Nowadays, Lily (no. 25) is generally assumed to be a flower name, but medievally, it was an English nickname of Elizabeth.

Three names are of Greek origin. We’ve seen Sofia (no. 14) before, but in a different spelling. The -ph- is closer to the original Greek, while the -f- spelling shows Latin influence (it was this spelling that became the preferred spelling in Italy and Iberia). Chloe (no. 17) is an epithet of the goddess Demeter, but it was also used as an ordinary personal name. There is a New Testament character named Chloe, and her name is spelled Cloe in the Wycliffite translation of 1395. We haven’t found any medieval examples of the name but would not be surprised to see it amongst Protestants in the 16th C. Zoey (no. 23) is a variant of Zoe, from Greek ζωή ‘life’. Zoe was the name of an early Christian saint, but it was primarily used in Byzantine (Greek) contexts (it didn’t enter England until the 1850s). We haven’t yet explored many Greek sources, so we don’t yet have any examples, but we would not be surprised to!

Three names in this group are Germanic. The first, Amelia (no. 12), is often connected with the Latin gens Aemilius, but though the two names were early confused and conflated, they are of different origin. Amelia derives from the element *amal, and could have been used as a nickname of any compound name beginning with Amal-. The name can be found in Germany, the Low Countries, and France in the Middle Ages, in various spellings.

In the top 10 we saw Ava, which in that form is relatively rare medievally. Its diminutive forms, which include Evelyn (no. 15), were vastly more common — though one of the most common medieval spellings, Avelin or Aveline, doesn’t appear in the US top 1000 at all!

Ella (no. 18) is a curiously little name, when it comes to medieval usage. It’s one of those names that sounds like it should be a well-used classic, and yet, it is surprisingly rare. It was used in England from the Norman Conquest until the 14th century, as well as in Germany, but its real popularity dates to its revival by the Pre-Raphaelites.

We next move onto the names which are best classified as French: It is not that they were ultimately French in origin (both are of Germanic roots rather than Latin) but that these particularly spellings are uniquely French. Both names are also originally masculine names, having transferred to feminine usage only recently: Avery (no. 16) and Aubrey (no. 21). Avery is a French form of the name that is more standardly Alfred in English. The Alf- element became first Auv- and then Av- in French, while -frid or -fred became -frey and then -fry. The root of Aubrey is Alberich, with again the Alb- element mutating into Aub- in French, and -rich becoming -r(e)y (in the same way that German Heinrich became English and French Henry). These names were not used by women before modern times (though feminine forms of both can be found in medieval France, Auverée and Auberée).

Three of the names are surnames, two of them patronymic and one descriptive. Madison (no. 11) and its rhyming partner Addison (no. 24) are ‘son of Mathie’ (a pet form of Matthew) or occasionally ‘son of Maddy’ (a diminutive of Mathilda or Maud) and ‘son of Addy (a pet form of Adam), respectively. These surnames are both English, and can be found from the 13th C on. Scarlett (no. 22) is also a surname in origin, deriving from Old French escarlate ‘scarlet’. Scarlet was not only a color but the name of a rich, sumptuous cloth of that color, and an ‘escarlate’ was someone who traded this cloth. The surname is established in England from the 12th C on.

We finally have two names from Latin: We include Grace (no. 19) here because the ultimate root of the name is Latin gratia. The name was not common in England until the 16th C, but other variants — such as Gratia itself — can be found on the continent earlier. The other, Victoria (no. 20), was the name of some 3rd and 4th C martyrs, but they were not enough to push the name into common use; examples are quite rare before the 16th C.

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Medieval roots of modern names: The US 2015 top 11-25 for boys

Having covered the top 10 in our previous two posts, we now go through the names in a bit quicker fashion. In this post we cover names 11-25 from the boy’s list, grouping them together according to origin.

Biblical: Elijah (no. 11) is almost unheard of in the Middle Ages in this form — instead, it was the form Elias, influenced by the Greek spelling of the name, that was extremely common, particularly in England and France, giving rise to the English vernacular Ellis. Daniel (no. 12) was used throughout Europe from a relatively early period, but it wasn’t until the 16th C that it became popular. The Old Testament is definitely the favored part of the Bible for this group of names, with four more drawn from there. David (no. 18) has enjoyed widespread popularity, showing up as the name of early Welsh and Anglo-Saxon saints and of two 14th C kings of Georgia (the country, not the state). The name was especially popular in Wales where it gave rise to a plethora of nicknames, of which Dio would be a fun alternative to re-introduce into modern use. Joseph (no. 21) is rather like Daniel: Found throughout Europe but never especially popular. Unlike Daniel, however, it didn’t enjoy a boost in use by the Puritans, likely for the same reasons that Mary was not especially preferred. Gabriel (no. 22) is a strange one; it shows up in France and Italy from the 14th C, but was almost unheard of before then, and it was not common in England at all until the 16th C. In contrast, Samuel (no. 23) was for the most part more popular in England then elsewhere.

Moving on to the New Testament, two of the gospel writers are featured: Matthew (no. 15) and Lucas (no. 16). The former was rare before the 12th C but afterwards became quite common all over Europe, and in a wide variety of forms. Lucas is the Latinized form of the name, but it was also found in the vernacular, being the spelling used in the Wycliffite translation of the Bible into English from 1395. Lucas was also the preferred Middle French spelling, and a handful of examples in Spanish and German are also known.

Irish: Aiden (no. 13) is an anglicized form of Old and Middle Irish Áedán/Early Modern Irish Aodhán, which is traditionally identified as a diminutive of the O/MIr áed ‘fire’. Áedán was a popular name in early Ireland, and the plethora of saints named this (including one who went as a missionary to northern England and founded the monastery of Lindisfarne, not far from where the DMNES headquarters are located!) has contributed to the revival of the name in the 20th C. We do not yet have any examples of the name in the Dictionary, but that is because of some of the unique problems that the main sources for Irish names — the Irish annals — present in our contexts. We’ve got a blog post brewing on that topic, as we may have figured out at least part of a solution recently.

Surnames: In this category we have three surnames, one originally deriving from a place name, one from a patronymic byname, and one from an occupation. While all of these names have medieval roots, none of them were used as given names in the Middle Ages. Logan (no. 14) derives from a number of places known by this name, the most important being Logan in East Ayrshire, Scotland. Jackson (no. 17) quite literally means ‘son of Jack’, with Jack being a diminutive of John found in England from the 13th C. The surname of occupation Carter (no. 24) derives from Latin carettarius, Old North French caretier, Middle English cart(e) (of Scandinavian origin) + -er, or Old French charetier, all meaning ‘charioteer, carter’, or the like. The byname arrived in England with the Normans and the Danes.

Miscellaneous: The three that don’t fit in any other category are an eclectic mix. First there is Oliver (no. 19). Many people have suggested is related to Latin oliva ‘olive’ but this hypothesis is not well supported. A more plausible alternative is that it is a gallicization of Scandinavian Olafr, which arrived in France with the Vikings. Indeed, the first examples we see are in France and England in the 12th C, about when you’d expect the Northman name pool to have become the Norman name pool. The name was also much less common in places that were not significantly influenced by the Vikings.

Next we have Jayden (no. 20), the first name in this list that has no identifiable medieval origins of any kind. The name came into use in the US in 1994, and its origins before that are murky.

Finally, Anthony (no. 25) is the only name on the list of Roman origin. It was the name of a Roman gens, and is itself possibly of Etruscan origin. One might expect that names of Roman inheritance to be most popular in Italy — and indeed we have a number of Italian examples — but the popularity of the 4th C Saint Anthony ensured that the name spread widely throughout Europe.

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Medieval roots of modern names: The feminine US top 10

Having looked at the top ten boys’ names in the US for 2015 in this post, we now turn to the top 10 girls’ names for the US in 2015, according to the data released earlier this month.

  1. Emma: This classic British name gets its roots from Old German, via the element ermen or irmin, used as a first element in many compound names. Such compound names were often reduced to diminutive form by truncating the second element, result in Irma or Erma, which in turn developed into Emma. The name was used throughout Germanic Europe in the early part of the Middle Ages, but it only remained popular in England, due to the high regard with which Queen Emma, queen consort of England, Denmark, and Norway in the 11th C, was held. The name developed its own hypocoristics, with Em(m)ot(t) and Em(m)et(t) being used. Both of these read as masculine names nowadays, but Latinate forms such as Emota or Emmetta would both work as feminine names in the 21st C.
  2. Olivia: Olivia is an Italian or Latin form of Olive, and Shakespeare is often credited for the use of the name in England. This is not the case. While Oliva may have been a more common Latin form of the name, variants Olivia and Olyvia can be found in England as early as the 13th C.
  3. Sophia: With roots going back to the ancient Greek word for wisdom, σοφία, and the name of some early Christian martyrs, it’s no surprise that Sophia has been used widely for a very long time. It was never especially popular in the Middle Ages, but examples can be found from Brabant and France to Latvia and the Ukraine. Interestingly, we have not yet found any examples of the name in England; Withycombe s.n. Sophia notes that the name came into use there in the 17th C, along with other Greek virtue terms such as ἀλήθεια ‘truth’ and χάρις ‘love, charity’.
  4. Ava: This extremely popular modern name has a curious history. It is likely from Old German avi, of uncertain origin and meaning, and is only rarely evidenced medievally. Instead, its diminutive form Avelina (and variants) takes the stage as a relatively common name in France and England. We recently did an in-depth search for examples of Ava at the request of a reader, and were surprised at how few instances we found!
  5. Isabella: This Latin form of Isabel itself derives from Hebrew Elizabeth, via the Old Provençal form Elisabel, which was later interpreted as el Isabel ‘the Isabel’. The name first shows up in the 12th C, and while in some parts of Europe its connection to Elizabeth was quickly lost, in England even in the 16th C you can find examples of the same woman recorded in one context as Isabel and another as Elizabeth, and spellings such as Elizabella, Elsabel, etc., show the difficulty in confidently ascribing these forms to one name or the other.
  6. Mia: It’s not often one can point to a precise origin for the use of a name in the US, but Mia may be one such name. The first best-known example of the name is Mia Farrow, whose birthname was Maria. So far, we have found no evidence for this contracted form before 1600.
  7. Abigail: Abigail was essentially unused before the middle of the 16th C, and became quite popular, in certain circles, afterwards. It isn’t uncommon to find the name spelled with two ls during that period, which would make a lovely, slightly unusual variant spelling nowadays.
  8. Charlotte: There’s no doubt that the popularity of this name was influenced by the birth of a new princess, but interestingly, Charlotte itself is a relative late-comer into the pool of English names, first introduced in 1626 (see Withycombe s.n. Charlotte). It is a diminutive form of Carla, the feminine of Carl (cf. Charles), and can be found before 1600 in both France and Italian (though there this diminutive took the form Carlotta). It is curious, given how popular Charles was throughout the Middle Ages, how unpopular the feminine form appears to be.
  9. Harper: This is our first non-given-name (in origin, at least) on the list. Like Mason in the boys’ top 10, this surname was originally an occupational byname, deriving from Old English hearpere ‘harper’. The same byname can be found in England spelled Harp(o)ur, from Anglo-French harpour or Old French harpeor.

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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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Arthurian names: Ambrose/Emrys

By Anonymous, C15th - Original MS held by Lambeth Palace Library, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9510186

By Anonymous, C15th – Original MS held by Lambeth Palace Library, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9510186

Our most recent post in our monthly topic focused on the character Merlin, and in particular the form of his name given to him by Geoffrey of Monmouth: Merlinus Ambrosius. Having concentrated on the Merlin/Myrddin forms in that post, in this one we now take up the issue of Ambrosius, and its connections to the Welsh name Emrys.

Monmouth is the first to give Merlin the epithet Ambrosius, and this element is distinctly non-Celtic: It is a Roman nomen ultimately deriving from Greek ἀμβρόσιος ‘immortal, divine’. The most famous historical Ambrose is the 4th C church doctor Aurelius Ambrosius, better known modernly as St. Ambrose of Milan. While Ambrose was never a popular name, it was used throughout Europe. The use of the name almost certainly is due to the fame of the saint, and not due to the Arthurian connections via Monmouth.

Merlin is not the only Ambrosius to appear in connection with the Arthurian myths, nor is St. Ambrose the only historical Ambrosius who has a second name associated with the word aurelius. In the 6th C De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, the historian Gildas mentions a 5th C Romano-British war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus; in Welsh histories, he is known as Embreis Guletic (Guletic being a form of gweldig ‘lord’). A 9th C Historia Brittonum, often attributed to Nennius, confuses this person with the boy who became Merlinus, resulting in Monmouth’s conflation of the names into Merlinus Ambrosius [1].

So what about this Welsh form of the name, Emreys or Embreis in Old Welsh and Emrys in modern Welsh [2,3]? We have no non-literary examples of the name used by people in the Middle Ages. It does show up in a place-name associated with the Arthurian character: Dinas Emrys, a post-Roman hillfort where, according to the Historia Brittonum, a young Merlin prophesied to Vortigern that the white dragon of the Saxons, would be conquered by the red dragon of the Welsh [*].


References & Acknowledgements

[1] Hutson, Arthur E., British Personal Names in the Historia Regum Britanniae (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1940), pp. 58, 119.

[2] Bartrum, Peter C. Welsh Classical Dictionary (Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales, 1993).

[3] Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydein. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978).

[*] Many thanks to Dr. Heather Rose Jones for sharing her research on the medieval usage of Emrys.

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Arthurian Names: Merlin/Myrddin

We couldn’t cover names from Arthuriana without covering the name of arguably the most important character, bar Arthur himself: Merlin. This character owes his existence to Geoffrey of Monmouth, who named him Merlinus Ambrosius (Welsh: Myrddin Emrys). We’ll devote two posts to his name, considering both the Latin and Welsh forms of the first name in this post and then Latin and Welsh forms of the second name in the next post.

The root of Merlin’s given name lies in the city of Carmarthen, which was originally a 2nd C Roman fort named Maridunum or Moridunum ‘fort by the sea’. Later forms of the name were influenced by Old Welsh *Morddin, which developed into merddin and myrddin, and then Welsh caer ‘fort, fortified settlement’ was added. In the 12th C (Geoffrey was writing around 1136), the city’s name was recorded variously as Caermerthin, Cairmerdin, and Kaermerdyn. Geoffrey took these names, and interpreted the second element as a personal name, Merdin or Myrddin. [1] On this point, Hutson delightfully comments:

The fact that Geoffrey connects Merlin with Caermarthen is evidence that Geoffrey is probably eponymizing again [2].

He goes on to explain that

The shift from Merdinus to Merlinus has been explained by Lot as an attempt to avoid an unpleasant association with the French merde, and this seems a good reason [2].

There is little to no evidence that Myrddin was ever used as a personal name as a result of Arthurian influence, before modern times. Merlin, on the other hand, was sporadically used in England in the 13th and 14th C, with examples such as Ralph filius Merlin 1202, Jon Merlini c1210, Henry Merling 1327, and John Merlyn 1347 [3]. By the 14th C, the name had also made it to the Netherlands, in the spelling Merliin [4]. The name can also be found in Germany, but there it is not entirely clear that the Arthurian character is the root. When used by women, Merlin can be a diminutive of Margaret (see this post for a discussion of the suffix.), and it can also be a derivative of Middle High German merle ‘thrush’.

Next post, we’ll pick up Ambrosius/Emrys.


References

[1] Hywel Wyn Owen & Richard Morgan, Dictionary of the Place-Names of Wales, (Gomer, 2007): s.n. Carmarthen.

[2] Hutson, Arthur E., British Personal Names in the Historia Regum Britanniae (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1940), p. 59.

[3] Reaney & Wilson s.n. Merlin.

[4] De rekeningen van de grafelijkheid van Holland uit de Beierse periode, Serie I: De rekeningen van de tresorier en de dijkgraaf van de Grote Waard, Deel: 1393-1396. (Den Haag: Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis, 1997).

[5] Bahlow, Hans, Dictionary of German Names, tr. Edda Gentry (German-American Cultural Society, 1994 ISBN: 0924119357), s.n. Merl(e).

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Monthly topic for April, and a milestone

Due to a combination of not having gotten through all that many names last month — after all, we haven’t even discussed Merlin! — and having received a number of votes to continue with it, this month’s topic is going to again be Arthurian names! If you’ve missed any of the ones we’ve covered so far, here’s a list:

We’re also well on our way to the publication of the next edition possibly by the end of the week. With 45,000 citations of over 1850 names, this edition will mark our 1st anniversary. Our first edition had just over 20,000 citations of slightly more than 1,000 entries, so in a year we have nearly doubled in size. Quite the target for next year if we’re to replicate this!

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Arthurian Names: Kay/Kai/Cai/Cei


Sir Kay is the son of Sir Hector, and the foster-brother of Arthur. He, along with Bedivere, is one of the earliest characters to appear associated with Arthur in the literary cycles, appearing in early Welsh poems such as the Welsh Triads and Culhwch ac Olwen. His name appears in a variety of forms in the various sources. In English he is Kay or Kai, in French romances the name is spelled Keu, and in Welsh, his name is Cei or Cai. These last forms, the earliest ones, give clue to the origin: Cai is a Welsh form of the Roman praenomen Gaius (see entry in next edition), also spelled Caius. The origin of this praenomen is uncertain, but it may be related to Latin gaudere ‘to rejoice’. So with this name we have seen names of Celtic origin (Arthur, Gawain, Guinevere), Germanic origin (), and Greek origin (Elaine, Hector), and now we’ve a name of Roman origin. (It won’t be the last!)

The name was never common, but it was used in England, particularly in areas with strong Welsh and Breton connections; Reaney & Wilson s.n. Kay mention one Britius filius Kay from 1199.

It is not clear to what extent the relationship between Kay/Cai/Keu etc. and Gaius/Caius was recognized medievally — i.e., the extent to which occurrences of Gaius can be taken as examples of the influence of Arthurian legends. In fact, the extent is probably very minimal, especially given other more likely routes to the name, such as the various minor New Testament characters, saints, or popes. In Italy — which is where our current single example comes from — the influence of Julius Caesar, Pliny the Elder, and Tacitus, all of whose praenomina were Gaius on the Renaissance likely contributed to the use of the name more than the Arthurian character.

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