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Mystery Monday: Polo

Every Monday we will post an entry that hasn’t yet been published with a view towards harnessing the collective onomastic power of the internet. If you have any thoughts about the name’s origin, other variants it might be related to, other examples of its use, etc., please share them in the comments! If you wish to browse other Mystery Monday names, there is an index.

Today’s name is one where we’ve got three instances in three different countries, and we’re not even sure that they are all in fact instances of the same name. In particular, the example from Austria may be of distinct origin from the others, as indicated by the distinct vowel; and the two Latin genitive examples may be genitives of different nominatives.


So, are these the same name? If so, what name? Got any thoughts? Other possible examples? Please share in the comments!



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The ‘elements’ of name: Water

Continue our tour of the four elements, we now come to the slipperiest, wettest one: Water.

Water names, especially ones derived from topographic elements relating to water such as Brooke, River, and Lake, but also other weather-derived names such as Rain, are pretty common in modern anglophone naming practices: But nature names like these are one of the few general categories of names which are distinctly modern. The evidence we have for water-elements in medieval names comes from three main types: compound names containing an element meaning or referring to water; names derived from named bodies of water; and names reference some water-based origin.

Of the first, we have, in England, the Old English word ‘sea, lake’, which was used as a prototheme in various compound names, both masculine and feminine. In our data, we have examples of Sehild (f.), Saulf (m.), Seaborn (m.), Seman (m.), and Serich (m.). Unlike other compound Germanic names, where the same themes show up in Germany, England, and Scandinavia, we have only found this element in English contexts with one exception — we have one example of a Swedish cognate of Seaborn in Finland (not yet in the dictionary: Sebijörs, gen.)

Of the second, we have Tiberius, a classical Roman name deriving from the river Tiber. Tiberius was the name of a Roman emperor, and, later, four Byzantine emperors. The name shows up in Germany and Italy quite early (most likely references to these emperors), and then there is a big gap before the name was revived in Italy in the 15th and 16th C, as part of the Renaissance fashion of mining classical names. In this context we should also mention the names Jordan (m., entry not yet available) and Jordana (f.). While the etymological root of the masculine name is almost certainly not the river in the Holy Land, the popularity of the name was significant increased because of its similarity to the river name, with many Crusaders returning with Jordan water and naming their children for it.

Of the final category are the names Marin (m.)/Marina (f.) and Pelagius (m.)/Pelagia (f.), Latin and Greek, respectively, for ‘of the sea’. In connection with Pelagius we should also note the name Welsh Morgan, which is etymologically unrelated to anything sea-like, but has historically been connected with Pelagius due to a false etymology of the protheme as deriving from Proto-Celtic *mori ‘sea’.


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Latin vs. Vernacular Forms, Part 1

Two common types of requests that we get are (1) how to construct hypothetical vernacular forms of names when our only evidence is Latin documentary forms, and (2) the other way around: How to construct a plausible Latinized form of a name in a vernacular. In this post, we provide some background for answering both of these questions in the form of some basic Latin grammar recap.

Latin is a case-based language, meaning that a single word can occur in different grammatical forms depending on how it is used in a sentence. (English used to be a case-based language, but it has lost many of the distinctions of case over time. A few remain: The difference between, e.g., the standard form “John” and the possessive form “John’s”, or the difference between, e.g., ‘she’, ‘her’, and ‘hers’.) The six cases, and the grammatical contexts in which they are used, are:

  • Nominative: Used for the subject of a sentence.
  • Genitive: Used to indicate ownership or possession.
  • Dative: Used for indirect objects, and with certain prepositions.
  • Accusative: Used for direct objects.
  • Ablative: Used with certain prepositions, usually ones indicating movement ‘away’ or ‘from’.
  • Vocative: Used when identifying a person or thing being addressed.

Note that we are vastly oversimplifying here: In particular, the oblique forms (that is, the non-nominative ones) are much more complex in when and how they are used.

Because names can be found in any of these six different grammatical contexts, they can be found in any of these cases. The case that a word (including names) is in can be determined by a combination of the ending of the word and the grammatical context it is in. (For example, when the dative and the ablative forms of a word are identical, the presence of a preposition used with the ablative case can identify which case the word is.) The case endings generally follow a reliable pattern depending on which declension a word is in, and the part of the word to which the case ending is added is called the stem. Latin has five declensions, of which most names fall in the first three, so they’re the ones we’ll focus on:

Words in the first declension have fixed stems and the following case endings (in the singular):

Case Ending
Nom. -a
Gen. -ae/-e [1]
Dat. -ae/-e [1]
Acc. -am
Abl. -a
Voc. -a

Most feminine names are in the first declension.

Words in the second declension have fixed stems and the following case endings (in the masculine singular):

Case Ending
Nom. -us
Gen. -i
Dat. -o
Acc. -um
Abl. -o
Voc. -e

Most masculine names are in the second declension. (The second declension also contains words of neuter gender, which have the ending -um in the nominative, but they are not relevant for our purposes: Personal names in medieval records are always either masculine or feminine in grammatical gender.)

Words in the third declension have stems that change when an oblique case ending is added. Typically, these case endings are:

Case Ending
Gen. -is
Dat. -i
Acc. -em
Abl. -e

However, in some cases, the accusative form of a third declension name is identical with the nominative; and there are a variety of other slight variations amongst third declension names. Many masculine names whose nominative form ends in -o Hugo) are third declension.

In part 2 of this series, we’ll look at how one can take a name in Latin, whether nominative or oblique, and, comparing it with other Latin-vernacular pairs of similar declension and case, hypothesize plausible vernacular forms.


[1] Classical Latin -ae often was reduced to -e in medieval Latin.

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Three French documents relating to Africa

Most of the time when we’re working through sources culling names from them, our primary interest is in the names themselves, and not the contents of the documents (though sometimes of course you find something interesting, such as a reference to a person you know (I found Peter Abelard once!) or an interesting legal dispute, or socio-economical titbits such as women owning land and donating it to the church). We recently came across a short little article [1] in a 19th C journal that had three documents in it which were absolutely fascinating both from a linguistic/onomastic point of view as well as from a historical point of view, so we thought we’d talk a bit about them here.

One of the by-products of keeping detailed geographical information for each citation is often having to go on investigations to match medieval Latin placename forms with modern places. A lot of times, it’s easy — the common names (e.g., “Parisius”) show up a lot and are linguistically related to their modern forms. Other times, the connection isn’t immediately obvious, especially when it’s a smaller, less important city. (My knowledge of French geography has increased significantly in the last five years.) Usually the first step is to plug the Latin form of the name into wikipedia, and see if there are any hits; quite often there will be some documentary quote in the entry of the relevant modern city that includes the historical form of the name, and then it’s just a matter of triangulating what we know about the city from the document it’s mentioned in to the info in the wikipedia article to confirm that we’ve got the right one (important when there is more than one city with the same, or similar, name). The title of this article, “Chartes Inédits Relatives aux États de Bougie et de Bone (1268-1293-1480)” mentioned two cities — or rather “states” — that I didn’t recognise, but since the introductory material to the article mentioned Marseille, so I figured it would be somewhere in that area.

So I was totally taken by surprised when I found out that “Bougie” is a historic French name for the Algerian city Béjaïa, and that “Bone” (more properly “Bône”) or “Bona” is an old French name for the Algerian city Annaba, aka Hippo, where the great Saint Augustine came from.

Records from/relating to Algeria! From the middle of the 13th-century, Algeria was ruled by the Hafsid sultanate, but there were close connections between it and southern France, and thus these documents fall squarely within the scope of the Dictionary.

The first document, from 1268, is in Latin, and written under the authority of Guillaume Dagenessa, “vicarius” of Marseille, on behalf of Charles, king of Sicily, and concerns the establishment of a consulate at Bougie, with one Hugues Borgonion, a merchant, nominated as consul.

The third document, from 1480, is in Middle French and is from “Loys, par la grace de Dieu, roy de France, conte de Prouvence, et seigneur de Marceille” to “le illustrissime roy de Bone nostre chier amy”, who is, alas, unnamed, but who is the son of “le roy de Thunys”, that is, Tunisia (presumably, Uthman, Hafsid caliph from 1435–1488). The editor of the treatise speculates that the person in question might be Abu Yahya Zakariya, who was caliph of Ifriqiya from 1490-1494. It truly is a shame that the letter does not name its recipient!

The second document, from 1293, is by far the most exciting one. First, it is written not in Marseille about Béjaïa — it is written in Béjaïa, to be sent back to Marseille! Second, it is the first document in Old Occitan that we have had the opportunity to work with for the Dictionary. Three men are named — Guillem de Cadenet, “cavallier et viguier de Marseilha”, the recipient of the letter; and the two authors, Peire Jordan and Peire de Gerusalem, consuls, who are written to Guillem on behalf of all the merchants from Marseille in Béjaïa. (There is something somehow fitting about how out of three men, we only get two names. The popularity of forms of Peter in southern France is distinctive and pervasive, and while we would have loved to have more variety in these scant examples, it is satisfying to see the general pattern reinforced by such a small data set.)

What tremendously exciting documents to have come across, and we look forward to the next edition of the Dictionary which will boast not only its first names in Old Occitan but also its first names from Algeria!


[1] L. de Mas Latrie, ed., “Chartes Inédits Relatives aux États de Bougie et de Bone (1268-1293-1480)”, appearing in vol. 2 of Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartres (1840-41), pages 388-397.


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The return of -cock and -kin

Over a year ago we discussed two unusual English diminutive suffices, -co(c)k and -kin. At the time, we said of -co(c)k:

This suffix was never common, and we don’t currently have any examples in our data, but look forward eagerly to the day when we do!

Well, now we do! So we thought we’d devote a post to revisiting these suffices.

We have recently been working through the 1379 poll tax of the West Riding of Yorkshire, which is delightful in that not only has a number of given names recorded in diminutive form, but also — despite being recorded in Latin — a surfeit of vernacular matronymic and patronymic bynames based on diminutives. In addition to adding the given name citations directly to the Dictionary’s database, we have also been adding the evidence from the bynames to the body of the relevant entries. This data will be available in the next edition.

-kin first. To our previous examples of -kin, we can now add diminutives of William Wilke, Wilken, Wilkin, Wilkyn, and Wylkyn. The -kyn spelling is favored in this dataset; we also have Adken, Adkyn, Atkyn, Attkyn (from Adam), Jonkyn (from John), and Perkyn (from Peter). The suffix was not exclusive to men; our final example, Malkyn, is a diminutive of Mary.

And, *drum rolls*, our two new examples of -cock! Adcok is another diminutive of Adam and Wilkoc is another reduction of William.

These are not the only diminutive suffices we find in this dataset, and they are certainly not the most common ones. We will set about exploring the nicknames of Yorkshire in a future post!


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Mystery Monday: Ymatke

Every Monday we will post an entry that hasn’t yet been published with a view towards harnessing the collective onomastic power of the internet. If you have any thoughts about the name’s origin, other variants it might be related to, other examples of its use, etc., please share them in the comments! If you wish to browse other Mystery Monday names, there is an index.

Today’s name is a masculine name recorded in Latin in Latvia. It has a clearly identifiable Low German diminutive suffix, -ke, but the root name is uncertain. Do you have any guesses? Have you see the name before? Please let us know in the comments.



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Mystery Monday: Usupina

Every Monday we will post an entry that hasn’t yet been published with a view towards harnessing the collective onomastic power of the internet. If you have any thoughts about the name’s origin, other variants it might be related to, other examples of its use, etc., please share them in the comments! If you wish to browse other Mystery Monday names, there is an index.

Today’s name comes from a delightfully varied source of Italian names, both masculine and feminine, from Bergamo between 1265 and 1339 A number of the names from this source are already included in the Dictionary (and you can see a list of them all here), but nearly as many name forms are still awaiting identification. Today’s mystery name we don’t even have any gut feelings about:


We welcome any insights or thoughts about its origins/roots. Do you have any? Have you seen any other examples of this name? Please share in the comments!


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