Tag Archives: Caleb

Medieval roots of modern names: The US 2015 top 26-50 for boys

Moving on to nos. 26-50 on the list of top boy’s names in the US for 2015, we continue the trend of the largest category being the names of Biblical, providing a nice mix of both Old and New Testament names. First we have John (26), a name regarding which we can be surprised for finding it so low. Since the 12th century it has been, almost without fail, the most popular man’s name across Europe, and it’s only in the last few decades that it has fallen out of favor in America. Part of the reason it has dropped rankings is because of the rising popularity of variant forms and diminutives, which the US Social Security tracks separately, but which we include in a single entry. Thus, here we should also note Jack (no. 40), a diminutive which has its origins in Middle Dutch Jankin. Other names in this category include Luke (no. 28), which we saw in an earlier post in the Greek-influenced variant Lucas; Andrew (no. 30), which we could also have included under the “Greek” heading below, and which was relatively common throughout Europe; and then various Old Testament names like Isaac (no. 31), more commonly used earlier by Jews but becoming popular amongst Protestant Christians in the 16th C; Joshua (no. 33), Caleb (no. 37), Nathan (no. 38), Jonathan (no. 48), and Isaiah (no. 49), names almost unheard of before the 16th C and still rare then; and Levi (no. 42), used almost exclusively by Jews medievally.

The next most common type of name in this group are the ones deriving from medieval surnames: Hunter (no. 41), an occupational byname deriving from Old English hunta ‘hunter, huntsman’; Jaxon (no. 44), a purely modern spelling of Jackson, which we saw in an earlier post; Landon (no. 46), a French surname found (among other examples) in the early 15th C in the city of Choisy; and Grayson (no. 47), a Lancashire and Yorkshire form of Graveson ‘son of the greyve (steward)’.

Of equal number are the names of Germanic origin. Two are classics: Henry (no. 29) and Charles (no. 50), the names of kings, emperors, and saints. In particular, the eight English kings named Henry have helped ensure the popularity of this name in the English-speaking world, and Charlemagne, one of the Nine Worthies, was a well-respected figure throughout Europe. The third, however, may surprise people by occurring in this category: Wyatt (no. 34). This is an English form of French Guiart or Wiard, with W- forms being typical of Normandy and Picardy, which in turn derives from two German elements. (Despite this, the name was vastly more popular in France than anywhere else).

We next have four names, two of Greek and two of Latin origin. The Greek names are names of saints: Christopher (no. 32) and Sebastian (no. 35), both of which were used throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Finally, we have one religious and one secular Latin names: Christian (no. 43), identical in origin to the proper adjective, never extremely popular but found more often in Germanic and Scandinavian contexts; and Julian (no. 45), a name of imperial status, most common in Italy and France and found rarely elsewhere.

We’re left with a handful of origins each witnessed by one name. We have another name of Irish origin: Ryan (no. 39) is an English form of the Old Irish name Ríán, which was used during the 9th-11th C. It then fell out of use, and was revived in modern times. And in this batch of names we get our first name of Welsh origin: Dylan (no. 27) is a name found in Welsh mythology, and like many such names, we have no evidence that it was used by real people during the Middle Ages.

Finally, we have one name which is best described as complicated: Owen (no. 36). This spelling is a modern English form of a name which occurs in medieval Welsh as Owain, deriving from Old Welsh Ou(u)ein. This name is often connected with Old Welsh Eug(u)ein, explained as an adoption of Greek Eugene. The early Welsh Ou(u)ein or Eug(u)ein was the name of an Arthurian character, a son of Urien, with the result that the name was also used in French, developing into Yvain. It has been questioned, though, whether Ou(u)ein is related to Eugene — for it would make it an unusual example of a Greek name imported into Old Welsh at a very early date. It may be that the name has an independent origin, only later retro-actively connected to the Greek name. Hence, as we said, it’s complicated!

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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.


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

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


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