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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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Masc/Fem names: When do they differ?

We mentioned in our previous post how Latin records are so nice for uniquely identifying the gender of the bearer of names — someone who is filius Edwini is the son of a man named Edwin, while if he were filius Edwine he’d be the some of a woman called Edwina.

But how often is this merely a requirement of Latin grammar, that every word have one of three grammatical genders, and how often is this reflective of the underlying vernacular practice? Naturally, this depends on what the vernaculars are, and those which descended from Latin (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese) are much more likely to keep an explicit grammatical distinction in the names. In Iberia, that shows up in the preponderance of women’s names ending in -a (though, of course, there are exceptions, such as Spanish and Catalan forms of Beatrice). In Italy, you see the same marking of feminine names, but often paired with a distinctive masculine ending in -o (as can be seen in the list of masculine/feminine pairs in 15th C Florence). In France, southern dialects tend towards Iberian practices, while in northern dialects, masculine names are generally unmarked, while feminine forms are derived by adding an -e (earlier) or doubling the final consonant and then adding an -e (later).

In England, however, the Latin forms often introduced distinctions not present in the vernacular. Withycombe, p. xxxv notes that:

Latin records of the 12th to 15th centuries show that the custom of giving masculine names to girls was also common in England; they appear in Latin with feminine endings, e.g., Philippa, Nicholaa, Alexandra, Jacoba, but it is clear that girls so named were in fact baptized and called Philip, Nicholas, Alexander, James, etc….Other names which were commonly used for girls were Gilbert, Aubrey, Reynold, Basil, Eustace, Giles, Edmund, Simon, Florence.

When the only references we have are in Latin, it is difficult to obtain evidence via which to test Withycombe’s assertion about the vernacular. However, once we start seeing records in Middle English and Early Modern English, then it is possible to see to what extent the feminine vernacular forms resemble the masculine.

The majority of our examples of Philipa in England are from the 16th C, and the majority of these are variants without the terminal (in fact, most of the examples with the -a are restricted to Devon, suggesting a regional early adoption of the Latin form as the vernacular.)

Feminine forms of Nicholas were never very common in England, and inspection of the entry for Nicole is only partly confirmatory of what Withycombe says. The vernacular forms have all lost the -a, but none of them have the -as. Instead, vernacular forms like Nichol and Nycoll look much more like the French feminine form of the name (and the spelling we took as the header name). This makes it more likely that girls named Nichol in the vernacular were named in accordance with the imported French form than simply given the masculine English form.

We don’t yet have any examples of Alexandra in England; Withycombe herself has only two early 13th C examples, adding that

Alexandra is found in England in 1205 and Alexandria in 1218, and these may have been named after a 4th-C martyr, though they are more likely to be mere latinizations of Alexander used as a girl’s name….Lyford 1655 gives Alexander as a f. name, and an early-14th-C English legendary gives Alisaundre as the name of the mother of St. Thomas of Canterbury

Further data will need to be collected to see more clearly how this feminine name appears in the vernacular.

Similarly, we have very few examples of Jacoba in English contexts, and curiously, all of them are diminutive forms: Jacobin, Jackett, and Jakett, all of which could equally easily be used by men.

Of the other names Withycombe mentions, only three of them do we have feminine examples from England. We have a handful of 12th-14th C examples of Basile in its Latin form Basilia, but our only vernacular example, in the 16th C, is not Basil but Basile, the usual French form. Eustacia in the vernacular is Eustice. The third name, Florence, is curious in that we have plenty of vernacular feminine examples of this spelling, — but no masculine ones! In fact, vernacular forms of the masculine version tend to end in -t, e.g., Florent.

It wasn’t until the end of the 16th C that you regularly start seeing Latinate forms, like Olivia, Isabella, Joanna, etc., instead of Olive, Isabel, Joan, etc., used in the vernacular. This is due in no small part to the influence of Shakespeare on English naming patterns at the turn of the 17th C, as he preferred Italian or Latinate forms of names in many cases. This penchant for the Latin -a ending can still be seen today, with the preponderance of feminine names given in English-speaking countries being ones ending with that letter or sound.

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