Tag Archives: Esther

Looking into history: Unexpected finds

In this post, we take a look at some of the names in the ONS girls’ names data from England and Wales (up through the first 300) which may surprise some people by turning up in the Middle Ages.

First up is no. 41 Imogen — historically thought to have first appeared post-1600 as a typo in a Shakespearean play, the name has an alternative history, dating back to medieval Germany.

Ancient Greek name Penelope (no. 48) came into use in England in the 16th, part of a fad for classical names. (Nickname Penny (no. 198) is more modern, though.)

No. 65 Ada has an old-fashioned feel to it — but did you know it’s roots go back at least to the 9th C in France?

Biblical names Lydia (no. 130), Leah (no. 136), Esther (no. 173), Naomi (no. 178), Rebecca (no. 186), Tabitha (no. 204), Lois (no. 215), and Rachel (no. 323) became popular amongst French, Dutch, and English Protestants in the 16th C, as did virtue names like Faith (no. 135). Interestingly, Hope (no. 139) is a virtue name that we haven’t yet found any pre-1600 examples of, though Esperanza from Latin sperantia ‘hope’ is found in 15th-16h C Spain and Italy (but not in the ONS data!)

Modern name Ottilie (no. 164) is a variant of medieval Odile, popular in France especially in the diminutive form Odelina.

No. 169 Laura first became popular after Petrarch as the poetic name for his love; it spread from Italy to France, Italy, and England over the 14th and 15th centuries.

Here’s a surprising one: Maia (no. 176). The DMNES entry is still in draft form, but we have two Low German examples from the 16th century; variant Maja (no. 192) is not an unreasonable alternative medieval spelling.

French-origin name Amy (no. 189) was popular in England from the 14th C onwards.

No. 196 Alba occurs in Catalan in the early 16th C.

Golden name Aurelia (no. 212) was used in Renaissance Italy. While name no. 361 Sapphire is generally interpreted as a gem name, when the medieval form Sapphira was used in 16th C England, it was more likely in reference to the New Testament character.

Did you know that Alana (no. 216) is a medieval name? It’s the Latin feminine form of Alan, and appears rarely. (Variants that add extra ls or ns or hs, such as Alannah (no. 472), Alanna (no. 650), Allana (no. 1788), Alanah (no. 1887), and Allanah (no. 3178) and compounds like Alana-Rose (no. 2901) and Alana-Rae (no. 5666) are not generally medieval.)

Nickname Effie (no. 236), usually a pet form of Euphemia (no. 4684), shows up in 16th C England (as does the full name itself) — a rare instance of an -ie or -y diminutive ending in medieval England!

Name no. 243, Talia we have examples of in 13th and 16th C Italy; there’s no entry for the name yet, as the etymological origin of the name is uncertain.

Names of classical gods and goddesses became popular in the Renaissance, including Diana (no. 275) found in both England and Italy (Diane (no. 3178) is a French form; Dianna (no. 3985) and Dyana (no. 48684) are modern forms). In general, the Latin names were preferred over the Greek — which means while we don’t have Athena (no. 239), Atene (no. 5666), Athene (no. 5666) (or the compound Athena-Rose, no. 4684) in the DMNES data, we do have Minerva (no. 2187). (The compound Diana-Elena (no. 5666) is also modern.)

Modern-day Melody (no. 312) is found in the Latin form Melodia in England during the fad for fanciful Latinate names in the 13th C. It’s during this period that we also find Amanda (no. 602).

Name no. 213 Remi shows up in medieval France — but as a masculine name, not a feminine name. Similarly, Alexis (no. 323) can be found right across Europe, but only as a man’s name.

The roots of Christmas name Natalie (no. 354) go all the way back to the early Middle Ages — it shows up multiple times in the 9th C, which makes it an incredibly well-witnessed early French feminine name!

We’ll tackle names from no. 400 down in a future post.


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Nature names: Sun, stars, and sky

Let’s turn our attention from the trees and the forests up to the heavens! In this post we consider names with linguistic roots in the celestial.


We’ve talked about Stella on the blog before, as an example of a name which many people think is modern, but which has actually been in use since at least the 15th C. It’s identical with the Latin word for ‘star’.

The origin of the Biblical name Esther is disputed, but one possible origin is the Persian word for ‘star’. This is a canonical example of a Protestant name, coming into use in the 16th C in French, Dutch, and English contexts.

The sun

Old Breton sul ‘sun’ (related to Latin sol) was a common prototheme in compound Breton names. We have examples of Sulhoiarn, Sulwal, and Sulwored (coming out in the next edition), as well as the monothematic name Sulon.

Next we have another Biblical name, Sampson, deriving from a Hebrew word for the sun. This name was surprisingly popular in France and England in the 12th century, though it was used sporadically in other times and places.

In this context let’s include names relating to dawn and sunrise: Orienta and Aurisma are both found in early 9th C France, and have etymological connections with dawn.

The heavens

The heavens generally are the root of two masc/fem pairs of names of Latin origin: Celeste and Celestus, and their derivatives Celestina and Celestine

Gods and goddesses

Lastly, we have two names which are connected to celestial phenomenon via the name of a god or goddess. The popular Welsh name Llywellyn derives from two god names, the second being the name of a sun god perhaps related to Apollo. The feminine name Tamar has two distinct origin; the examples we have so far represent the Biblical name of Hebrew origin, but the name also occurs in Georgia as the name of a sky goddess.


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Publication of Edition 2016 no. 4

We’re pleased to announce that Edition 2016, No. 4, went live last night. We didn’t quite hit our (admittedly ambitious) goal of reaching 50,000 citations, but with 48,862 in this edition, we’ll surely pass it in the next!

We also crossed the 2100 threshold for number of entries, coming in to a total of 2108. There are 86 new masculine names:


And 58 new feminine names:



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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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Monthly topic: Protestant names

In the last quarter two of the most exciting sources that we’ve been working through are The Registers of the Protestant Church at Caen, volume 1: Births & Marriages 1560-1572, ed. C. E. Lart. (Huguenot Society of London, 1908) and The Marriage, Baptismal, and Burial Registers, 1571 to 1874, and Monumental Inscriptions, of the Dutch Reformed Church, Austin Friars, London, ed. William John Charles Moens. (Lymington: Privately Printed, 1884). These, along with the many English parish registers that we’re always continuously working through provide an insight into a unique trend in naming practices in the second half of the 16th C — the naming patterns of the Protestants. What we’ve found has been so interesting, we’re making it the monthly topic for January.

True aficionados of historical onomastics will likely be familiar with Bardsley’s Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature (London: Chatto & Windus, 1880) — the coffee-table book of names, the sort that you have lying around to open up at random pages to read off to your guests. (What, doesn’t everyone do this? Your guests are missing out…) Bardsley’s focus in this book, as is obvious from the title, is Puritan naming practices, specifically in England, so his focus is both narrower — we’re looking at Protestants in general, not just the Puritans, — and broader — we’re looking beyond just England, whereas his focus is almost exclusively English; additionally, we focus on the pre-1600 period, rather than spreading into the 17th and 18th C. Nevertheless, his book still provides a foundation upon which any study of Puritan names, or indeed Protestant names more generally, should be built, so we begin our month by looking at some of his conclusions.

Curiously, Bardsley argues that

we must at once draw a line between the Reformation and Puritanism. Previous to the Reformation, so far as the Church was concerned, there had been to a certain extent a system of nomenclature. The Reformation abrogated that system, but did not intentionally adopt a new one. Puritanism deliberately supplied a well-weighed and revised scheme (pp. 42-43).

While there is no doubt that the Puritans took this new scheme of naming practices to the extreme, particularly in the 17th and 18th C, it is a mistake to take these new practices as being confined to the Puritans. The Reformation didn’t happen merely in England, but also on the continent, and we can see the same sorts of trends in naming patterns amongst the Dutch and the French as well.

We will be devoting individual posts to (at least) three distinct classes of given names which are specially evidenced in the French, Dutch, and English sources noted above:

  • Old Testament names
  • New Testament names
  • Virtue names

These classes are not unique to the second half of the 16th C (or thereabouts); examples of all of them can be found earlier. In particular in England, Bardsley notes that the Biblical stories enshrined in medieval mystery plays were a popular source for names, so already before the Puritan and Protestant influence we can find examples of Samuel, Noah, Judith, Esther, etc. (p. 35) However, these names were never common before the 16th C, and we also see many of the more obscure names first showing up amongst Protestant families. One important cause of the new take-up of both Old and New Testament names is the translation of the Bible into vernaculars over the course of the 14th and 15th C, thus making these names accessible to everyone. Bardsley dates the influence of the English Reformation on contemporary naming practices to 1560, “the year when the Genevan Bible was published”, which was “not only written in the vulgar tongue, but was printed for vulgar hands” (p. 38), though hints of the new trend can be found as early as the 1540s. 60 years may not seem like much, and certainly it’s a small percentage of the period the Dictionary covers, it will still provide us with plenty of names to study over the course of the rest of the month!


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