Tag Archives: Guiart

Nature names: Trees, forests, and woods

Nature names are a popular choice of names in contemporary Anglo naming practices, so we thought it would be interesting to see what sort of nature names can be found in medieval Europe. The answer is “Not many” — of all the inspirations that there were for coining or constructing new names in the Middle Ages, the option of taking as a name some nature-related word was very rarely exercised.

In this post, we look at names deriving from elements related to trees, forests, woods, etc.


Masc. Sylvius and fem. Sylvia derive from the Latin word silva ‘woodland, forest’. From this word we also have the masc./fem. pair Sylvester and Sylvestra.

The other class of forest/tree/wood names deriving from Latin origins are those which are the names of specific types of trees. Laurence and Laurencia both derive from a Roman cognomen itself derived from Latin laurus ‘laurel, bay-tree’. The masc./fem. pair Palm and Palma derive from Latin palma, which can either refer to the palm of the hand or to the branch of a palm tree. This name became popular in the Middle Ages as a name for people born or christened on Palm Sunday. The final tree-type name that we have instances of was also influenced, in its use, by its significance to Christianity, namely, Olive, from Latin oliva ‘olive tree’. (It is often hypothesized that Oliver also derives from this word; but in truth, the origin of this name is uncertain.)


Old Saxon widu, wido,Old High German witu ‘wood, woods, forest’ was moderately common in compound names, both masculine and feminine. In men’s names, it’s almost exclusively used as a prototheme, as illustrated in the names Guiart, Guither, Witugis, and Wedekind; the one exception is the simplex name Guy.

In contrast, our only example of the element in women’s names is as a deuterotheme, in the names Alvice, Ansois, Eloise, Hawise, Herois, and Hildois.

The Old Icelandic cognate viðr can be found in the name Arvid.


The final name is a curious one. Modern French bois ‘woodland, woods’ can be traced back to Old French bois, from Latin boscus, but a Latin origin is not enough to put this element under the ‘Romance’ category; for boscus is actually a vulgar Latin development, a Latinization of Frankish busc or busk, and this Frankish word in turn developed from Proto-Germanic buskaz ‘bush, thicket’. So it can be considered as either a Romance element or a Germanic one!

The name we have that includes this element is itself a curious one, because it was not a given name in origin. Tallboys was originally a French nickname for a wood-cutter, or anyone who cuts wood; but in the 16th century in England, there developed a pattern of using surnames as given names (no, this isn’t a modern naming pattern as some people might think!). We have one example of Tallboys used as a given name, and it occurs in England.


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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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