Tag Archives: Ava

Traditional names are still the most popular

The highlight of the onomastician’s calendar is always the publication of the babyname statistics for various countries — when the US Social Security baby name data for the previous year is released (usually in May), you can see the excitement sweep across the onomastic portion of the internet. (Even those of us who focus on medieval names rather than modern names will still block out an evening to do nothing but scroll through the new lists!). Yesterday, the BBC reported on data from the Office for National Statistics with the top 10 boys’ and girls’ names in England and Wales for 2016.

Despite the plurality and diversity of naming options facing modern parents, especially in anglophone countries where it is common for parents to adopt names from many different cultural contexts, the most popular names tend to be relatively conservative, in the sense that they do not change much from year to year (though they change enough that generational and regional trends are easy to see); they tend to favor “standard” spellings of names; and they tend to be names with a long pedigree. Names like Daenarys and Khaleesi may have made it into top 1000 lists for both the US and the UK, and they may be climbing steadily, but it will be a long while before they’ve been around long enough to make it into the top 10. (If Martin’s books are still being read at that point, a few centuries in the future, he should be well pleased!)

But just how long a pedigree do the names in the top 10 for England and Wales have? That’s the focus of today’s post!

Top 10 girls’ names in England and Wales

  1. Olivia: Olivia reflects the modern tendency to prefer polysyllabic, Latinate, explicitly gender-marked forms of names. The name is often cited as being an invention of Shakespeare, but that is manifestly not true; not only did he not invent it, he was not the instigator of its use in England. Forms of this name have been used in England from at least the 13th C onwards, and this particular spelling can be found in Latin documents in 1296 and 1321. On the continent, the name was used even early, from at least the 9th C in France.
  2. Amelia: Amelia sounds like it follows the same Latinate pattern as Olivia, due to its similarity to the Roman gens name Aemilia, but in fact it derives from Proto-Germanic *amal ‘vigor, bravery’, and could have been used as a diminutive of any of various names beginning with this element (such as Amalhilde, Amalgilde, Amaltrude, or Amalswintha).
  3. Emily: Now this name is the one derived from Aemilia. While the masculine form Emil was moderately popular medievally, Emily was always uncommon. In England, the name is best known, in the Middle English spelling Emelye, as the princess in Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale”.
  4. Isla: Isla as a name, and especially as a feminine name, is distinctly modern. It derives from the name of an island, and the pattern of naming children after geographical regions such as islands, cities, duchies, and states is quite recent (relatively speaking).
  5. Ava: Ava is a strange name in that we have a pretty long history of its usage — particular in the diminutive form Aveline — but other than being able to identify it as Germanic in origin, it is not clear further what its linguistic roots or etymology are.
  6. Isabella: Isabella fits neatly in with Olivia as the Latin form of a common medieval name, Isabel, which itself arose from another common medieval name, Elizabeth. Even as late as the 16th C, one and the same woman could be recorded as Isabel(la) and Elizabeth interchangeably, and hybrid forms like Elsabell can also be found in that era.
  7. Lily: It’s almost overdetermined that Lily would appear in the “most popular” girls’ names of the present era. The name both reflects the penchant illustrated by Isla above to name children after naturalistic elements, and it bears its original usage not from the flower but from a nickname of Elizabeth, and is still sometimes nowadays used to honor relatives named Elizabeth.
  8. Jessica: Jessica is another name, like Olivia, which is thought to be invented by Shakespeare but wasn’t actually. Forms of this name were used by Jewish women living in England before the expulsion in 1290.
  9. Ella: This trim, spare name might hearken to the -bella names, but it is another name of Germanic origin, deriving from Proto-Germanic *allaz ‘all, whole, every’. It was rare, but has been used since at least the 15th C.
  10. Mia: Mia is the one outlier of the entire bunch; it’s use is prettty much purely modern. It can be used as a nickname of various names, including Mary, Amelia, and Emily, and is identical with the Italian and Spanish word ‘mine’, from Latin mea. Mea, now, does have a long history of usage — but as a nickname of Bartholomea.

Top 10 boys’ names in England and Wales

  1. Oliver: With Olivia number 1 for the girl’s, Oliver might strike many people as simply the masculine equivalent — but the truth is much more complex. It may be a derivative of Latin oliva just as Olivia is, but it could equally well be a form of Olaf developing in Normandy, or a form of Aylward via Alvaro spellings. Whatever it’s origin, the name has a long history, showing in Belgium, France, England, and Ireland by the end of the 12th C, spreading outward from there in the 13th and 14th centuries, and being pretty well established across Europe by the end of the 16th C.
  2. Harry: What do you get when you take a Germanic name pronounced by Frenchmen and write it down by an English speaker? Why, Harry of course! Due to the numerous kings and saints named various forms of Henry, it’s no surprise that this is one of the most popular masculine names in all of European history.
  3. George: No doubt about the pedigree of this name; the eponymous saint that slew the dragon and kickstarted the name’s popularity lived in the 3rd-4th C. It was never a hugely popular name in England before the 16th C, but from then on, it has been well-established, getting extra boosts from a couple of kings.
  4. Jack: How Jack developed as a nickname of John is a perennial question, and one we’ve discussed before. In our own data, we have examples from the 14th C onwards.
  5. Jacob: After John, Jacob is probably the most popular medieval man’s name of Hebrew origin — though as with other names of Biblical origin, Jacob was rare before the 12th C. The majority of the few 9th C examples we have were of clerics or people closely associated with the church, where the use of this name instead of a name of Germanic origin was a strong signal of the family’s Christianity. By the end of the 16th C, James was perhaps slightly more popular than Jacob in England, but both remained strong contenders.
  6. Noah: This Old Testament name came into use amongst English and French Protestants in the 16th C, but it was also used occasionally before then, influenced by the medieval mystery plays.
  7. Charlie: This name has a relatively short history in England; before the 16th C, it was quite rare, and many of our pre-1500 examples in England are actually foreign visitors. The name was, however, vastly popular on the continent due to its most famous bearer, Charlemagne. It’s not clear when the diminutive form Charlie developed; we haven’t yet found any pre-1600 examples yet. Thus, of all the names in this list, Charlie can be taken to be the most “modern”.
  8. Muhammad: Muhammad is clearly a name with a long history, but many people probably think that history is almost exclusively Middle Eastern — but that is because people often tend to forget how much Arabic settlement, trade, and migration there was during the medieval period. In the 1510 census of Valencia, seven men named Mahomat are listed; in Italy, a “Saracen” named Machemet is recorded in 1160. And this is to not even delve into the records from al-Andalus, where this name was extremely popular, accounting for over 30% of the men.
  9. Thomas: As with other names of Biblical origin, Thomas first gets its purchase in England in the 12th century; from then on, it was consistently and continuously one of the most popular names in the country.
  10. Oscar: This name has two distinct origins. First, and most commonly, it is a compound of Old English ōs, Old High German *ans, ans-, ansi-, Old Icelandic áss, óss ‘god, deity’ + Old English gār, Old High German, Old Saxon gēr, Old Icelandic geirr ‘spear’. The name was quite popular in France and Germany in the 9th-12th C, but it mostly fell out of use after that. The modern popularity of the name is probably due more to the second origin it has, Irish os ‘deer’ + cara ‘friend’. This name was vanishingly rare in medieval Ireland, but was used by James Mcpherson in The Works of Ossian (1765), through which (via Napoleon and his grandson) the name entered the Swedish royal line. This combination of Irish heritage and Scandinavian foreignness makes it no surprise that the name is as popular in England as it is today, even though there was a centuries-long gap in its usage.

So there you have it! Unsurprisingly, the most popular boys’ and girls’ names in England and Wales last year are strongly rooted in a long historical tradition in which many of these names have been amongst the most popular for millennia.

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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 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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Every day is Christmas when you’re an onomast

Sometimes, when I stop and think about the scale of our undertaking, it can seem a bit daunting. EVERY name from EVERY European document for more than 1000 years? 1000 editorial assistants working 1000 years wouldn’t be enough, if you think about it rationally.

So the easiest thing to do is don’t (think about it rationally, that is). We know this is a big project, and one that will hopefully outlive us. And in the meantime, one way to make incremental steps towards breadth of coverage — rather than the depth that we could get if we, say, concentrated on 16th C English parish registers — is by keeping many pots on the stove at once, that is, working on multiple sources at once. Each editorial assistant can choose what and how many projects to have on hand at the same time, with some choosing to keep to their onomastic specialities (such as Hungarian) or to a culturally-linked but relatively under-developed area in terms of medieval onomastic research (such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland), while others of us simply flit from source to source as new possibilities become available.

One result of this tactic is that you never know what you are going to find. Those of you who follow us on Twitter know that last week thanks to a Cambridge University Press booksale we came away with 19 volumes from their “Cambridge Library Collection” on the cheap. One of them, Historic and Municipal Documents of Ireland, A.D. 1172-1320, caught my eye because we have had some people complain (with justification) that our current coverage of Ireland is quite minimal. (It’s not nonexistent, but currently we have Irish citations in only five entries, Henry, Laurence, Ralph, Robert, and William, none of which, the astute reader will note, are especially Irish.) Tonight I sat down to flip through it, and item III is a late 12th C document headed “Dublin Roll of Names” — 45 pages of them. Most of them are distinctly Anglo-Irish in origin, but casual flipping shows a little bit of the underlying Gaelic substrate peaking through, such as an occurrence of Padin, a Gaelic diminutive of Patrick; Gillafinean, a form of Gaelic Gilla Finnén; and Galgethel, at the moment unfamiliar but almost certainly to be Gaelic in origin. 45 pages of names from Dublin? It’s like Christmas has come three months early.

In addition to systematically working our way through sources transcribing names, we also often do individual consultations for people who are looking for further information about the use of a particular name, and these searches often serendipitously lead to gems. The other day, while searching for examples of Ava which were not diminutives, we found a mid-11th C charter from Ghent with the most lovely list of women and their daughters, some familiar, some distinctly unusual:

Ermengardis, Emma, Tisvidis, Ava, Ermentrudis, Memlendis, Lulend, Badin, Nodelend, Bivin, Bernewif

This afternoon, speculation on Facebook about how an early 9th C Frankish woman could’ve ended up with the given name Suspecta lead us to return to the original source to look up the names of her family members, which include father Teutfredusb (Theodefrid, mother Fulca (entry available in the next edition, s.n. Fulka), and siblings Seats (obscure, in both origin and gender), Teodarus (Theodeher), Gisledrudis (entry available in the next edition, s.n. Giseltrude), and Teodara (entry available in the next edition, s.n. Theodara).

I’ve been studying names in some form or another for more than two decades, and the thrill of finding an onomastic gem never fades. The Dictionary is, to some extent, merely an excuse to go on finding them.

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