- 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.
- 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.
- 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’.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Tag Archives: Abigail
In our previous post we highlighted three types of names which are distinctly Protestant, by which we mean that the majority of them came into use (or came into common use) in the second half of the 16th C as a result of their uptake by Protestants. The first class of these was Biblical names, and we’ll devote this post and the next three to these — separating out Old Testament from new Testament names, and separating out women’s names from men’s names. In this post, we kick things off looking at women’s names from the Old Testament, surveying the ones in the Dictionary that we have found used in French, Dutch, and English Protestant contexts.
Abigail: One of the wives of King David. Bardsley  notes that of all the OT feminine names, “none had such a run as Abigail” in England (p. 66). We find this name in all three of our contexts, from the 1560s on.
Deborah (entry available in next edition): The name of one of the Israelite judges. Our evidence so far is purely on the Dutch side, from the 1570s on, but this is an artefact of our incomplete data, nothing more. Withycombe  notes that Deborah was popular among Puritans in the 17th C, with Bardsley describing it as “an especial pet of the fanatics” (p. 66) — though he also says that the use of this name was the product of the Reformation more generally and not the Puritans more narrowly (as our data evidences).
Eve: The name of the second person created (and first woman), the wife of Adam. While the Biblical character went through a period of disrepute in the early Middle Ages, her name, unlike the others we were looking at, was in use prior to the 16th C, and was also used much more broadly than some of the other Old Testament names, being found in the Czech Republic, and in England and France from the 12th C. Bardsley attributes the popularity of Eve in England to the mystery plays (p. 35).
Judith: The eponymous character of one of the books of the Apocrypha. This name was also in use before the 16th C (in England as early as the 9th C!), but it wasn’t until the 16th C that it became common — common enough that the diminutive form Juda is found in England in 1577 and Judie is found in France in 1563. Outside of this 16th C Protestant usage, the name can be found in Germany, Latvia, and the Czech Republic in the 13th and 14th C.
Naomi: The name of Ruth’s mother-in-law in the Book of Ruth. Withycombe says the name did not come into use in England until the 17th C. Our single example comes from France in 1564.
Orpah: Another character in the Book of Ruth, Orpah was Naomi’s other daughter-in-law. This name was not used outside of England, and it was rare in England.
Rachel: A wife of Jacob and hence one of the matriarchs of Israel. Withycombe says the name was popular amongst Jews but not used in England until the 16th C. This name is perhaps the clearest indication of Protestant influences: Our only examples come from French, Dutch, and English contexts in the second half of the 16th C.
Rebecca: The wife of Isaac and the mother of Jacob and Esau. We find examples of this name amongst Dutch and English Protestants.
Ruth: The eponymous character of an Old Testament book, the daughter-in-law of Naomi and the sister-in-law of Orpah. It was more popular than either of these, but still never common.
Sara (entry still being written): The name of the wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac. To be honest, the only reason this entry isn’t yet available is because it’s the entry for my own name, and I feel a higher level pressure on it than any other. But we already have amassed a large number of examples of the name, which was found in England and France from as early as the 12th C. A handful of other scattered examples can be found between then and the 16th, but the appropriateness of including this name in our discussion of Protestant influences is evidenced by the huge jump in examples that are found in the second half of the 16th C, again across English, French, and Dutch contexts.
Susan (entry still being written): The name of a character in the Apocrypha, the name is found in England from the 12th C (again another result of the mystery plays), but wasn’t common there until the 16th C. It’s popularity, in England, is somewhat earlier than some of the other newly adopted Old Testament names: Our earliest 16th C example is from 1530. A similar pattern of us can be seen in France; it is found, rarely, in the 12th-13th C, and then suddenly relatively popular in the Protestant registers in the late 16th C.
Tamar: The name of three Old Testament characters, the most prominent of which being the daughter of King David, who was raped by her half-brother Amnon. As a result, Tamar’s reputation was not highly regarded in the medieval and post-medieval periods; Bardsley notes that “surely Tamar and Dinah were just as objectionable as Venus or Lais…Bishop Corbett brought it as a distinct charge against the Puritans, that they loved to select the most unsavoury stories of Old Testament history for their converse” (p. 71). Half of the fun of reading Bardsley is seeing his 19th C social commentary, which is again in evidnece when he says “Arising out of the Puritan error of permitting names like Tamar and Dinah to stand, modern eccentricity has gone very far, and it would be satisfactory to see many names in use at present forbidden” (p. 76). But Bardsley shouldn’t be laying the blame on this name with the Puritans, for the name was used by Protestants more broadly; our single example (so far) comes from France.
 Bardsley, C.W., Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature (London: Chatto & Windus, 1880).
 Withycombe, E.G., Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, 3rd ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).