Whether or not you’re a fan of the British monarchy, if you’re a fan of names, it’s hard not to get excited about the announcement of the name of the Queen’s new great-grandson.
But when the news came out yesterday afternoon that the new royal baby is named Archie Harrison (not even Archibald!), many of the conversations I overheard, online and in person, were uncertain. Americans find Archie/Archibald fusty and old-fashioned (it’s much less so in Britain!); Brits find Archie unendurably diminutive — what’s wrong with good old Archibald?! Others felt that Harrison was a bit too en pointe for a son of Harry.
One advantage of dealing with names of historical people is that all the people whose names we discuss in this blog are dead — if we poke a bit of sly fun, no one will be hurt. It’s different went the names being analysed are the names of actual, living people, with parents who chose that name with care and with love. So I don’t want to get into any analysis of whether Archie Harrison is a “good” or a “bad” name for royal baby (or any baby) — that’s none of our business.
But what we can do is talk about the names themselves! Archibald is a curious name in that it’s most iconic spelling is actually its most idiosyncratic, if you look at its origins. The name is a dithematic Germanic name, with the root themes being Old High German erchan ‘sublime, special; chief; genuine, true’ and Old High German bald ‘bold’. (For Tolkien fans, the prototheme is a cognate with Old English eorc(n)an, as in the Arkenstone.) The -n often turned to -m before -b (which was sometimes also spelled -p), and a variety of spellings retaining that nasal consonant can be found in Austria, France, Germany, and Poland between the mid 9th century and the early 13th century; in the latter Middle Ages, the name was increasingly less popular on the continent.
This can be contrasted with the rise of the name in the British Isles, and particularly in Scotland. Scottish Latinisations tended to drop the -n- or -m-, as well as to shift the initial vowel from E- to A-, which is how we get the familiar (in English-speaking countries) spelling Archibald or Archibold. The name was common amongst the earls and dukes of Douglas, Moray, Argyll, and Angus from the 13th century onwards; it was its popularity amongst Scottish nobility that eventually caused the name to spread southwards, with examples occurring in England in the 16th century.
One question is — how did the name get to Scotland? It first shows up at the end of the 12th/beginning of the 13th century, which is around the time that it is fallen out of popularity on the continent, so a continental explanation seems unlikely. There was a corresponding Old English cognate, Eorc(n)anb(e)ald ; but this native name appears to have fallen out of use in England after the Conquest, so is also not a clear candidate for migrating up north. There is one other twist to the story: Often, in Scotland, Archibald wasn’t really Archibald — it was a way that Latin-writing scribes rendered the Gaelic name Giolla Easpuig!
So much for Archibald — which, after all, isn’t even the new baby’s name! What about the diminutive Archie? Well, we haven’t yet found any examples of this form in the data we’ve surveyed. This is due in large part to the fact that diminutives are, across the board, less well represented in documentary forms, so, just as modernly, medieval people recorded as Archibald in a formal charter or a birth certificate may very well have been called Archie by their friends and parents. Diminutive forms are not excluded from formal documents, so we may still yet find evidence for this specific form before 1600.
The curious thing is that Harry, the root of Harrison and Archie’s father’s name, is sometimes itself considered a diminutive! Whether it’s a nickname or just a variant form of Henry depends on your ontology of nicknames, and is not a question we want to answer decidedly here. Harry simply represents how the French forms Henry and Henri were pronounced, with the nasalisation of the first vowel very light, and we can see Harry being used in English contexts as an alternative to Henry from the early 15th C onwards (as well as other variants such as Hare, Harre, Harri, and Harrie.) Such was the prevalence of the -n-less forms and pronunciations in England, that the surname Harrison was far more popular than, e.g., Henrison. (And one should of course not forget the vast number of Henrys that have sat upon the English or British throne!)
So while neither element of the name is classically medieval, both have a strong traditional history specific to Britain, making them perfect choices for a British royal baby.
 Found in the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England.