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Arthurian names: Elaine

By Unknown - From The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Painting known to be in family since at least 1887., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14728406

By Unknown – From The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Painting known to be in family since at least 1887., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14728406

There are a number of different characters named Elaine in the various stories, including Elaine of Astolat, Elaine of Benoic, Elaine of Corbenic, Elaine of Garlot, Elaine of Listenoise, Elaine the Peerless, and Elaine the Younger. Elaine of Astolat, aka Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, is probably the best known; her tale is told in the early 13th-century Mort Artu, written around 1210. The other well-known Arthurian Elaine is Elaine of Corbenic, the mother of Galahad by Lancelot.

Elaine is a form of Ellen, a name which was rare in France before the advent of the Arthurian tales, and was never common even after. The spelling Elaine is not a typical development from Latin Elena; instead, it was influenced by Welsh forms of the name. A 12th century legend identified Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, as a daughter of “King Coel of Colchester”, sometimes identified with Coel Hen of Welsh legend. Despite the lack of factual basis for any of these legends, the name was popular in Wales.

French forms of the name include, variously, Helaine, Elayne, and Helayne. These -ai- or -ay- spellings are specifically associated with the Arthurian character, as opposed to Latin (H)elena or vernacular English forms such as El(l)en, the use of which probably is due more to Saint Helena than to the Arthurian characters. If we exclude the ‘standard’ spellings and focus on spellings with -a-, we find that, for whatever reason, Elaine’s name was not taken up with the same popularity as some of the other Arthurian names. In particular outside of France, the only -ai- or -ay- spelling that we have is Elayn, which is found in Latin contexts in Suffolk in 1381.

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The “most popular” names, for women

One of the highlights of the onomastic year is when various governments publish name popularity data for babies born in the previous year (such as the US Social Security data and the registries for England and Wales). There is something about finding out which name occupies the no. 1 spot, and obtaining another data point in a trend. Is the name becoming more popular? Is it becoming less? Can we predict what the next top-10 names will be? Which names are destined for obscurity? What makes a name like Gary seem dated?

With few exceptions [1], it is sort of popularity/trend data is difficult to come by for medieval names. In any given collection of documents, it can be impossible, sometimes, to tell when the same person is being mentioned more than once, thus making individual occurrences of a name a poor guide to the name’s popularity. (It is for this reason that we include usage info in our entries; otherwise, one might think that, e.g., Innocent was a far more popular name than it actually was.) On the other hand, even factoring in the same person being referred to on multiple occasions, or the skewing introduced by kings, saints, and popes bearing a particular name, it is still possible to get a sense of which names, overall, are more popular than others (John, we’re looking at you), and which names were rare (one single 9th C example of Ermengaude: Not a popular name).

Because new citations are entered into the database on an ongoing basis, the process of reviewing them and marking them for inclusion in an upcoming edition is also ongoing. To facilitate this, we have a script which looks at all of the entries marked as “live”, and then returns a list of those which have unreviewed citations in them. On a daily basis we run the script and review (a portion of) the entries it returns, usually between 150 and 250. We programmed this script so that when we have a new citation of a relatively rare name, we are alerted to this without having to find it by hand. On the other hand, there are certain names which one hardly needs this script to find, for they are the ones that, on the whole, are likely to have new citations every time we sit down to review for inclusion. This names, by some qualitative rather than quantitative measure, are the “most popular” ones — the ones which have the broadest spread over language, geography, and time, which come in many spelling variants or with many diminutive forms. Most of them are ones you’d expect; a few of them are perhaps unexpected — at least, they probably don’t spring to mind if you asked yourself “What are the top 10-20 medieval given names?”

So, what are these popular names? We’ll discuss the women’s names in this post, and men’s names in an upcoming post. For women, there are seven names that I check on a daily basis, regardless of whether I am working in that part of the alphabet that day or not. They are:

If I wanted to round this list out to a nice ten, I’d add Agnes, Cecilia, and Mary, though on the whole these names are not as popular as the others.


Note:

[1] English parish registers from the 16th C are one. Because of the detailed birth/christening info they provide over a multi-decade span, it is possible to do trend analyses of name popularity. Scott Smith-Bannister, Names and Naming Patterns in England 1538-1700 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997) is an excellent example of this, for those who are interested.

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Diminutive forms in 16th C England

A remark in this post on an onomastics blog that I follow, that

it seems like people in the past were a lot less nickname-happy than people today. I’d be shocked to hear of, say, a Renaissance Amelia who went by Amy, or a 19th century pioneer Joshua who went by Josh

got me thinking. The comment surprised me because in the data I’ve worked with over the last decade and a half has included quite a few marriage and baptismal records from late 16th C English parish registers, and I’ve come across quite a few diminutive forms. I decided to cull data from an albeit very small data set (the data which is currently in the Dictionary‘s database, which is a very small excerpt of the data I’ve collected over the years), and do a bit of analysis.

Diminutive forms of names can mostly be classified into two types: Those where the radiconym was also in use, and those where it wasn’t. In the later case, by the 16th C, it may not really make sense to speak of those names being diminutives, if there no longer is, and hasn’t been for a long time, a name that they are a diminutive of.

In this category, we can class such names as Ursula, Wilmot, and Thomasine and their (very numerous) variants. These names derive from Ursa, Willelma/Williama and Thomasse/Thomasa, respectively, but these forms have historically been vanishingly rare in English. (Thomasse appears in French, Guillerma and variants in Spanish, and Ursa in Italian.) A masculine witness to this is Lancelot, and its variants; these are etymologically diminutives of Lance, but the popularity of the Arthurian character meant that the double diminutive form was far more popular than the radiconym.

Of the names where the radiconym was still in common currency, we can further divide the examples into those where the diminutive form is roughly as common as its root, and those where the nickname is substantially less common. In the former category are names such as Alison, Marian, and Isabel. The latter category are the ones that I believe the poster quoted above would find most surprising:

  • Annie 1586, 1597 (from Anne)
  • Beaton 1581 (from Beatrice)
  • Davy 1599 (from David)
  • Emot, Emet 1418, Emote 1580 (from Emma)
  • Ebbot 1597, Ebbet 1597 (from Elizabeth, or possibly Isabel)
  • Eliza 1567, 1581, 1582, 1584, 1594, 1595 (from Elizabeth)
  • Elineta 1563 (from Ellen, or possibly Eleanor)
  • Kate 1596 (from Katherine)
  • Nancy 1583 (from Anne)
  • Sybbie 1573 (from Sybil)

And this is only looking at examples which have 16th C citations; I omitted a number of 15th C examples.

This is but a small data set, and thus no strong conclusions should be drawn from it. But I think it’s certainly clear that nicknames were used in the Renaissance, even in as official contexts as marriage and birth records.

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