Tag Archives: Benjamin

Monthly topic: Medieval roots of modern names, part 1

Though we may be all about the medieval names at DMNES central, this is, for most of us, because we are interested in names in general, medieval or modern. So it should be no surprise that one of the highlights of the onomastic year is when the US Social Security releases their baby name data for the previous year. These lists are always a curious mix of the eminently traditional and the bizarrely modern, and there is little way to predict where a name will occur in the list on the basis of which of these two camps it most falls in. We thought we’d spend time this month looking at the names in the top 1000 and tracing back their origins. Are the new-fangled ones as new as they seem? What are some variations people could consider if they want a different twist on an old-fashioned name?

We’ll start in this post with the top 10 boy’s names:

  1. Noah: Number one name Noah is part of a venerable tradition of taking names from the Bible, but as we’ve discussed before. The name was used rarely in medieval England due to the mystery plays, but only became popular at the end of the 16th C.
  2. Liam: Liam is one of those name which is not medieval but derives from medieval origins. It is a diminutive of Uilliam, the Gaelic form of William which was in use since the Anglo-Normans invaded in the 12th century. However, the truncated form didn’t arise until after the 16th C was over.
  3. Mason: Originally an occupational byname, this derives from Old French maçon, masson ‘mason’.
  4. Jacob: This name and number seven below have, even more than Noah, a venerable history of use. Jacob can be found throughout Europe, while James is a distinctly English form of the name, even though in origin it derives from the Latinized French form Jacomus, which became Jacme in the vernacular.
  5. William: This is one of the few names of Germanic origin that not only didn’t fall out of use over the course of the 11th and 12th C, but became, if anything more popular. From William to Guillaume to Wilhelm to Guglielmo, the name adapted itself depending on the vernacular in which it was used. It also gave rise to a plethora of nicknames, including recognizably-modern ones like Will to unusual forms like Willick, Willeke, Wilquin, and Guilemon.
  6. Ethan: This Biblical name has always been more popular in the US than elsewhere, due to the fame of the Revolutionary hero Ethan Allen. We don’t yet any examples of the name, but given the trend for adopting obscure Biblical names that we’ve documented before, we would not be surprised to find some post-1550 examples in French, English, or Dutch.
  7. James: While James may be a distinctly English form of the name, it still has equal right to be called a Biblical name: This is how Jacob’s name was spelled in the Wycliffite translation of the Bible into English from 1395.
  8. Alexander: Another name which has been a classic for millenia, ever since one of the greatest military figures the world has ever seen swept onto the stage. The etymological origin of the name, deriving from Greek elements meaning ‘I defend’ and ‘mankind’, has also contributed to the popularity of the name. Medieval nicknames tend to differ from the standard modern Alex, with Sander, <Sanders, Zander, Sandry, Sa├ča, and Sandrin found in German, Dutch, English, French, and other contexts.
  9. Michael: Another name of Biblical origin. This name was popular throughout Europe, and, interestingly, it was so without having been the name of a pope, other major religious figure, or a king.
  10. Benjamin: Like Noah, Benjamin is an Old Testament name whose common use dates to the 16th C.

3 Comments

Filed under dictionary entries, monthly topic

Protestant names: Old Testament influences on men’s names (part 1)

Having looked at women’s names from the Old Testament in our previous post, in this one we turn to the men!

Except, first, the rectification of an omission — because we forgot a rather important name in our previous post! She’s a Hebrew girl turned Persian princess, she’s the cause of one of the most important Jewish festivals, she’s the eponymous character of one of the OT books…how could we forget to mention Esther? Spelled Esther, Ester, Hesther, or Hester, the name sprang into popularity in England and amongst Dutch and French Protestants in the second half of the 16th C, being virtually unknown in other linguistic, geographic, and temporal contexts. We have quite a large number of citations, but the entry for the name is not yet ready for publication because the etymology of the name is proving difficult to ascertain. There are plenty of theories — from the Median word astra meaning ‘myrtle’, from the Latin word astra meaning ‘star’, or related to the goddess name Ishtar, ultimately deriving from a root meaning ‘star’ — but we prefer good hard evidence rather than speculation when we can get it. Sometimes, though, conclusive data cannot be found, and we may simply end up having to present what information we have, and its relative merits. I suspect that it will be awhile before we have a satisfactory solution for this name.

Digression aside, let’s look at the men’s names drawn from the Old Testament! There are so many of them, we’re going to have to slit this up into multiple posts.

Aaron: The name of the brother of Moses and the first high priest, this name is curious because it doesn’t provide much evidence for the “Old Testament names became more common in the second half of the 16th C” hypothesis — not because it was already in use before then, but because, unlike so many other OT names, it never became common. We have two 16th C English examples and one from the Protestant Church in Caen, but this name was nowhere near as popular as some of the other more “mainstream” OT names. It was occasionally used in England, and elsewhere, earlier, but often by Jews rather than Christians. One exception to this is Wales, where the form Aron was not uncommon in the 15th C. The cause of this is unknown.

Abednego (entry available in next edition): The name of one of the three brothers thrown into the fiery furnace in the book of Daniel (his brothers’ names show up further down in the list!). When we first found the name Abdenago in France in 1565, given the context and the spelling our first thought was of Abednego, but the difference between bed and den seemed difficult to explain — until a bit of sleuthing revealed that in the Wycliffite translation of 1395, the Middle English form of the name was Abdenago. We are not sure when the den form switched to the bed form in English, but this is one of the questions that our investigations into early vernacular translations of the Bible will hopefully illuminate!

Abraham: The name of the patriarch of Israel, this name can be found as far afield as Hungary, yet it was always rare in France before the 16th C, and almost unheard of in England or the Low Countries before then.

Absalom: The name of the son of king David, this name is a curiosity as the only Protestant uptake of it that we have evidence for is in France; yet, the name was used sporadically before the 16th C across Europe, with most examples found in the 12th-14th C.

Adam: Like the name of his wife (see previous post), Adam was commonly in use throughout Europe before the Reformation. There is little need to explain the universal popularity of this choice!

Adiel: You can be forgiven for not recognizing this name, it was borne by a handful of unremarkable characters recorded in 1 Chronicles (27:25 4:36; and 9:12). The Adiel recorded in London in 1593 can be nothing other than a witness to the Protestant penchant for indiscriminate choice. Obscurity is not an issue, here!

Balthasar: Better known as one of the names of the three wisemen, Balthasar was common outside of England, France, and the Low Countries prior to the 16th C (often in conjunction with forms of Casper and Melchior — either two or three brothers with these names, or father/son(s) pairs), within our area of focus, there is a clear jump in the uptake of this name in the second half of the 16th C.

Benjamin: While our data doesn’t yet reflect this, the name Benjamin was in use in England througout the Middle Ages, albeit sporadically. It was popular enough to give rise to a surname found as early as the 12th C [1]. Outside of the second half of the 16th, the name was rare throughout Europe.

Caleb: The name of a minor character, this name was rarely used in 16th C England.

David: The name of one of the most important Biblical kings, David can be found quite early throughout Europe in ecclesiastical contexts; the popularity of the 7th C Saint David in Wales is the reason for the popularity of the name in Wales throughout the Middle Ages, and as the name of two kings of Scotland, its use there was also assured. The name was spread widely throughout Europe; this name’s use in the 16th C cannot be attributed exclusively to Protestant influences.

Daniel: The case of this name of an eponymous character of one of the prophetic books is similar to that of David, though here it is clearer that its popularity in England certainly increased in the second half of the 16th C.

Eleazar: This name could be classified as either an OT name (in this form) or a NT name (in the Latinized form Lazarus). While Lazarus and variants are not uncommon in Italy, the specific OT-influenced form Eleazar shows its face in England and France in the second half of the 16th C (the two 12th C instances in the Dictionary are from records relating to the Crusades in the Holy Land, and may be the names of Jews).

Elias: Elias (this spelling reflecting the influence of Greek) was one of the most popular Biblical names in the Middle Ages [2]. We cannot look to the use of this name as evidence for a Protestant pattern, but we can look to something more nuanced: In the 17th C, the spelling Elijah became specifically taken up by the Puritans in England (and the New World) [2]. We have yet to see an example of this spelling in the pre-1600 scope of the Dictionary.

Enoch: The name of an ancestor of Noah who walked with God and “then he was not”: He was taken up to heaven without ever having suffered earthly death. We have one example of it, from the Dutch Reformed Church in 1589.

Ezekiel: The name of a Biblical prophet, we have one example of this from the Protestant Church at Caen in 1561.

The remainder of the alphabet will be covered in future posts, but what we can see from these names alone is that the correlation between the use of OT names and Protestant influences is much lower among men’s names than among women’s names. However, if we look beyond the names of well-known, popular Biblical characters, like Adam, David, Elias etc., it is clear that there is a correlation between the use of obscure Old Testament names and English, Dutch, and French contexts from the second half of the 16th C.

References

[1] Reaney & Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames, s.n. Benjamin.

[2] Withycombe, Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, s.n. Elias.

2 Comments

Filed under dictionary entries, monthly topic