Tag Archives: Isabel

Traditional names are still the most popular

The highlight of the onomastician’s calendar is always the publication of the babyname statistics for various countries — when the US Social Security baby name data for the previous year is released (usually in May), you can see the excitement sweep across the onomastic portion of the internet. (Even those of us who focus on medieval names rather than modern names will still block out an evening to do nothing but scroll through the new lists!). Yesterday, the BBC reported on data from the Office for National Statistics with the top 10 boys’ and girls’ names in England and Wales for 2016.

Despite the plurality and diversity of naming options facing modern parents, especially in anglophone countries where it is common for parents to adopt names from many different cultural contexts, the most popular names tend to be relatively conservative, in the sense that they do not change much from year to year (though they change enough that generational and regional trends are easy to see); they tend to favor “standard” spellings of names; and they tend to be names with a long pedigree. Names like Daenarys and Khaleesi may have made it into top 1000 lists for both the US and the UK, and they may be climbing steadily, but it will be a long while before they’ve been around long enough to make it into the top 10. (If Martin’s books are still being read at that point, a few centuries in the future, he should be well pleased!)

But just how long a pedigree do the names in the top 10 for England and Wales have? That’s the focus of today’s post!

Top 10 girls’ names in England and Wales

  1. Olivia: Olivia reflects the modern tendency to prefer polysyllabic, Latinate, explicitly gender-marked forms of names. The name is often cited as being an invention of Shakespeare, but that is manifestly not true; not only did he not invent it, he was not the instigator of its use in England. Forms of this name have been used in England from at least the 13th C onwards, and this particular spelling can be found in Latin documents in 1296 and 1321. On the continent, the name was used even early, from at least the 9th C in France.
  2. Amelia: Amelia sounds like it follows the same Latinate pattern as Olivia, due to its similarity to the Roman gens name Aemilia, but in fact it derives from Proto-Germanic *amal ‘vigor, bravery’, and could have been used as a diminutive of any of various names beginning with this element (such as Amalhilde, Amalgilde, Amaltrude, or Amalswintha).
  3. Emily: Now this name is the one derived from Aemilia. While the masculine form Emil was moderately popular medievally, Emily was always uncommon. In England, the name is best known, in the Middle English spelling Emelye, as the princess in Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale”.
  4. Isla: Isla as a name, and especially as a feminine name, is distinctly modern. It derives from the name of an island, and the pattern of naming children after geographical regions such as islands, cities, duchies, and states is quite recent (relatively speaking).
  5. Ava: Ava is a strange name in that we have a pretty long history of its usage — particular in the diminutive form Aveline — but other than being able to identify it as Germanic in origin, it is not clear further what its linguistic roots or etymology are.
  6. Isabella: Isabella fits neatly in with Olivia as the Latin form of a common medieval name, Isabel, which itself arose from another common medieval name, Elizabeth. Even as late as the 16th C, one and the same woman could be recorded as Isabel(la) and Elizabeth interchangeably, and hybrid forms like Elsabell can also be found in that era.
  7. Lily: It’s almost overdetermined that Lily would appear in the “most popular” girls’ names of the present era. The name both reflects the penchant illustrated by Isla above to name children after naturalistic elements, and it bears its original usage not from the flower but from a nickname of Elizabeth, and is still sometimes nowadays used to honor relatives named Elizabeth.
  8. Jessica: Jessica is another name, like Olivia, which is thought to be invented by Shakespeare but wasn’t actually. Forms of this name were used by Jewish women living in England before the expulsion in 1290.
  9. Ella: This trim, spare name might hearken to the -bella names, but it is another name of Germanic origin, deriving from Proto-Germanic *allaz ‘all, whole, every’. It was rare, but has been used since at least the 15th C.
  10. Mia: Mia is the one outlier of the entire bunch; it’s use is prettty much purely modern. It can be used as a nickname of various names, including Mary, Amelia, and Emily, and is identical with the Italian and Spanish word ‘mine’, from Latin mea. Mea, now, does have a long history of usage — but as a nickname of Bartholomea.

Top 10 boys’ names in England and Wales

  1. Oliver: With Olivia number 1 for the girl’s, Oliver might strike many people as simply the masculine equivalent — but the truth is much more complex. It may be a derivative of Latin oliva just as Olivia is, but it could equally well be a form of Olaf developing in Normandy, or a form of Aylward via Alvaro spellings. Whatever it’s origin, the name has a long history, showing in Belgium, France, England, and Ireland by the end of the 12th C, spreading outward from there in the 13th and 14th centuries, and being pretty well established across Europe by the end of the 16th C.
  2. Harry: What do you get when you take a Germanic name pronounced by Frenchmen and write it down by an English speaker? Why, Harry of course! Due to the numerous kings and saints named various forms of Henry, it’s no surprise that this is one of the most popular masculine names in all of European history.
  3. George: No doubt about the pedigree of this name; the eponymous saint that slew the dragon and kickstarted the name’s popularity lived in the 3rd-4th C. It was never a hugely popular name in England before the 16th C, but from then on, it has been well-established, getting extra boosts from a couple of kings.
  4. Jack: How Jack developed as a nickname of John is a perennial question, and one we’ve discussed before. In our own data, we have examples from the 14th C onwards.
  5. Jacob: After John, Jacob is probably the most popular medieval man’s name of Hebrew origin — though as with other names of Biblical origin, Jacob was rare before the 12th C. The majority of the few 9th C examples we have were of clerics or people closely associated with the church, where the use of this name instead of a name of Germanic origin was a strong signal of the family’s Christianity. By the end of the 16th C, James was perhaps slightly more popular than Jacob in England, but both remained strong contenders.
  6. Noah: This Old Testament name came into use amongst English and French Protestants in the 16th C, but it was also used occasionally before then, influenced by the medieval mystery plays.
  7. Charlie: This name has a relatively short history in England; before the 16th C, it was quite rare, and many of our pre-1500 examples in England are actually foreign visitors. The name was, however, vastly popular on the continent due to its most famous bearer, Charlemagne. It’s not clear when the diminutive form Charlie developed; we haven’t yet found any pre-1600 examples yet. Thus, of all the names in this list, Charlie can be taken to be the most “modern”.
  8. Muhammad: Muhammad is clearly a name with a long history, but many people probably think that history is almost exclusively Middle Eastern — but that is because people often tend to forget how much Arabic settlement, trade, and migration there was during the medieval period. In the 1510 census of Valencia, seven men named Mahomat are listed; in Italy, a “Saracen” named Machemet is recorded in 1160. And this is to not even delve into the records from al-Andalus, where this name was extremely popular, accounting for over 30% of the men.
  9. Thomas: As with other names of Biblical origin, Thomas first gets its purchase in England in the 12th century; from then on, it was consistently and continuously one of the most popular names in the country.
  10. Oscar: This name has two distinct origins. First, and most commonly, it is a compound of Old English ōs, Old High German *ans, ans-, ansi-, Old Icelandic áss, óss ‘god, deity’ + Old English gār, Old High German, Old Saxon gēr, Old Icelandic geirr ‘spear’. The name was quite popular in France and Germany in the 9th-12th C, but it mostly fell out of use after that. The modern popularity of the name is probably due more to the second origin it has, Irish os ‘deer’ + cara ‘friend’. This name was vanishingly rare in medieval Ireland, but was used by James Mcpherson in The Works of Ossian (1765), through which (via Napoleon and his grandson) the name entered the Swedish royal line. This combination of Irish heritage and Scandinavian foreignness makes it no surprise that the name is as popular in England as it is today, even though there was a centuries-long gap in its usage.

So there you have it! Unsurprisingly, the most popular boys’ and girls’ names in England and Wales last year are strongly rooted in a long historical tradition in which many of these names have been amongst the most popular for millennia.

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Typical women’s names in early 14th C England

We’re currently working records from manorial court cases in England between 1250 and 1550 (namely, this source), and are now in the 1320s and 1330s.

One of the things that I love about court cases is how ordinary the names are; these are ordinary people, living ordinary lives. They are not royalty, they are not clerics, they are nothing that would mark their names out as unusual. So what were the typical women’s names in England at this time? Here are the ones we’ve come across so far (all in their Latin nominative forms; the actual vernacular form may have been quite different):

Margareta and Margeria, Johanna, Cecilia, Amicia, Alicia, Malota, Milisanta, Agnes, Juliana, Matilldis and Matilda, Dyonisia and Dionisia, Isabella, Emma, Athelina, Beatrice, and Katerina.

Aren’t they lovely?

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Medieval roots of modern names: The US 2015 top 51-100 for girls

While the top 100 boy’s names were all relative homogeneous amongst the groups that we looked at, the girl’s names are much more varied. We’ve noted in the previous groupings how rare names of Biblical origin are compared to the boy’s names; that’s not the case for this group of names in which names of Biblical origin are equal first with names deriving from surnames. This just goes to reinforce the great diversity in feminine names!

So let’s look at those Biblical names first. Sadie (52) is of American origin, originally a nickname of Sarah (58). Sarah itself is a relatively late spelling; the intrusive -h wasn’t found before the 16th C in England. Gabriella (54) is not a Biblical name, but it is a feminine form of one. While it’s masculine counterpart was used moderately commonly, the feminine form was rare outside of Spain and Italy in the Middle Ages. Madelyn (59) and Madeline (90) are two of the many variant spellings of Magdalene, originally a byname meaning ‘from Magdala’. One might view Madelyn as a prototypical ‘modern’ spelling with the y replacing i-e. And yet, Madelyn can be found in England in 1598. It’s actually Madeline that would be an atypical spelling, medievally! We include Genesis (65) in this list not because it is a Biblical name but because it is a name with Biblical origins. The penchant for naming children after book chapters is definitely a modern one! Returning to more traditional names, Eva (75) is a Latinized form of the name; it was never especially common, but it can be found in the Czech Republic, England, France, and Italy. The spelling Naomi is a post-medieval one; before the 17th C, the usual English (and French) form was Noemy or Noemi (77). Lydia (81), like Magdalene, could also be classified as a surname, given that it was originally a locative byname referring to a kingdom in Asia Minor. The name has historically been quite popular amongst Dutch-speaking communities, particularly Protestant ones. Isabelle (94) could also perhaps go into the names of French origin; you’ll struggle to find any Isabelle in the Old or New Testaments — but you’ll find plenty of Elizabeth‘s, and Isabelle derives from an Old Provençal form of that name. Similarly, one might expect to find Gianna (96) under the Italian names, but we have included it here as it is a feminine form of John. Both it and Giana can be found from the 13th C on.

It’s an eclectic group of surnames that turn up in this group. First we have the locatives: Kaylee (61) can be from either the French Cailly or the Lancashire Cayley. Hailey (64) is either from Hailey in Oxfordshire, or a descriptive for anyone who lives near a clearing filled with hay. Peyton (72) is the name of cities in both Essex and Suffolk, and Ashley (85) ‘clearing filled with ashes’ is the name of many medieval English placenames. In this subgroup we can perhaps also include Kylie (66). The origin of this name is disputed, and certainly we have no evidence that it was used in the Middle Ages. However, it is sometimes considered to be a feminine form of Kyle, which itself was a medieval placename, in Scotland. Next we have the occupationals, with Piper (68), of Old English origin and found from at least the 12th C on, and Taylor (76), of French origin, and also found from the 12th C on. The last four are all Irish patronymics in origin. Kennedy (57) is a an English form of Cennétig or Cinnéide, a rare name in Ireland used in the 12th and 14th C, and which first shows up in Scotland in the reign of William the Lion (1165-1214). Mackenzie (73) is an English or Scottish form of the patronymic byname mac Coinnich ‘son of Coinneach’. An earlier form of Coinneach, Cainnech, was used in Ireland between the 6th and 11th C. Quinn (97) is an English form of Irish Cuinn, the genitive (possessive) form of Conn, a masculine name used from the 10th to 16th C. Reagan (99) is also an anglicized form, of the masculine name Riacán used from the 9th to 12th C.

The next two biggest groups are those of Latin and Greek origin. The former kicks off with a name we’ve discussed before: Despite what many modern baby name websites nad books might say, Stella (51) is not a modern name, but can be found in 15th and 16th C Italy. Lucy (55) is a vernacular English form of a popular saint’s name, Lucia, though even in England Luce was the more typical form than Lucy. Bella (74) can be a pet form of any of various names including Isabella and Jacobella, but it can also be simply the Latin word for ‘beautiful’. The root of Ruby (83) is the gemstone name, but the name of the gem itself derives from Latin rubeus, rubea ‘red’. This is another name which many people consider to be a modern coinage which is not. With imperial roots, it is no surprise that Julia (89) has had a long history of use from classical Rome to the modern era. Some people credit Shakespeare with the introduction of the name into England, but this is false; the name was already in use there by the 13th C. Vivian (95) as the name of two early saints, but despite this the name was rarely used by women medieval. We have one late-period Italian example. Clara (98), on the other hand, enjoyed steady, if not excessively popular, usage throughout Europe.

Turning now to the Greek names, we’ve see two variants of Arianna (56), as well as one of Khloe (100). Maya (69) and Aurora (79) are two names of Greek origin (though Maya actually has more than one origin!) for which we have not yet found any evidence of medieval usage — though this is not to say that we won’t! Melanie (80) has also already shown up on this blog before, when we discussed names deriving from the color black. It was only rarely used medievally, in significant contrast to Katherine (84), one of the most popular women’s names of all time. Next, we have Alexis (86); a name which was found in the Middle Ages, but which was exclusively masculine. Its use as a feminine name is modern. Finally, we have Cora (88); we haven’t yet found an instance of the root name, but it gave rise to diminutive forms which are witnessed, including Corella and Corina.

There is but a handful of names of German origin. Mila (53) is a feminine form of Milo. The masculine form was quite common, but the feminine form was almost unused. Caroline (62) is a diminutive of Carol, a feminine form of Charles. We haven’t found any medieval examples of Caroline, but the diminutive forms were much more common than any of the full forms, with both French Charlotte and Italian Carlutia found in the late period. French-influenced Aubree (78) does not have the same origin that Aubrey has; the root name is Germanic Alberada or Alberadis. Alice (87) is an English form of a name that was popular throughout Europe in many different variants and diminutives; Alyssa (93) is one such, and while we haven’t yet found an explicit medieval instance of it, we would not be surprised to do so.

Next we have a group of names which have medieval roots as words, but were not used as names before the 19th C. The word Hazel (63) is Old English in origin, and you can read the entry for it in the Middle English Dictionary here. Autumn (67), on the other hand, is from an Old French word, used in Middle English from the 14th C. Medieval names were not generally taken from the stock of ordinary words; but one exception to this is the rise of virtue names such as Faith (91) in the 16th C. Serenity (71) is a modern coinage (it derives from Latin Serena); this word was not used in Middle English and only imported into English later.

Two names have long historical lineages but need to be classified as uncertain in origin. The usual tale of Eleanor (60) is that it’s from the phrase alia Aenor ‘another Aenor’, but this is unlikely given the early examples of the name, many of which include a -d-. Annabelle (92) has been in use in Scotland since the 12th C, and appears to be either a variant of or a misspelling of Amabel.

Brianna (82) is a feminine form of Irish Brian, and another name people point to as a modern coinage. However, Briana occurs as a name of a character in a 16th C Spanish romance, Espejo de Principe y Cavalleros. This poem was translated into English in 1578 and published under the title of The mirrour of princely deedes and knighthood: wherein is shewed the worthinesse of the Knight of the Sunne, and his brother Rosicleer, sonnes to the great Emperour Trebetio: with the strange loue of the beautifull and excellent princesse Briana, and the valiant actes of other noble princes and knightes. Now newly translated out of Spanish into our vulgar English tongue, by M.T. On an onomastically unrelated note, the “M.T.” here is one Margaret Taylor, the first woman to translate a Spanish romance into English and the first woman to have published a romance in English.

As the month draws to a close this is probably our last post in this series (perhaps until next year?), and it only seems fitting that we end with a name which in a sense epitomizes modern-day American naming practices, and which has no medieval roots whatsoever: Nevaeh (70), which is simply ‘heaven’ spelled backwards.

We hope you enjoyed this tour of the medieval roots of popular modern names!

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Medieval roots of modern names: The feminine US top 10

Having looked at the top ten boys’ names in the US for 2015 in this post, we now turn to the top 10 girls’ names for the US in 2015, according to the data released earlier this month.

  1. Emma: This classic British name gets its roots from Old German, via the element ermen or irmin, used as a first element in many compound names. Such compound names were often reduced to diminutive form by truncating the second element, result in Irma or Erma, which in turn developed into Emma. The name was used throughout Germanic Europe in the early part of the Middle Ages, but it only remained popular in England, due to the high regard with which Queen Emma, queen consort of England, Denmark, and Norway in the 11th C, was held. The name developed its own hypocoristics, with Em(m)ot(t) and Em(m)et(t) being used. Both of these read as masculine names nowadays, but Latinate forms such as Emota or Emmetta would both work as feminine names in the 21st C.
  2. Olivia: Olivia is an Italian or Latin form of Olive, and Shakespeare is often credited for the use of the name in England. This is not the case. While Oliva may have been a more common Latin form of the name, variants Olivia and Olyvia can be found in England as early as the 13th C.
  3. Sophia: With roots going back to the ancient Greek word for wisdom, σοφία, and the name of some early Christian martyrs, it’s no surprise that Sophia has been used widely for a very long time. It was never especially popular in the Middle Ages, but examples can be found from Brabant and France to Latvia and the Ukraine. Interestingly, we have not yet found any examples of the name in England; Withycombe s.n. Sophia notes that the name came into use there in the 17th C, along with other Greek virtue terms such as ἀλήθεια ‘truth’ and χάρις ‘love, charity’.
  4. Ava: This extremely popular modern name has a curious history. It is likely from Old German avi, of uncertain origin and meaning, and is only rarely evidenced medievally. Instead, its diminutive form Avelina (and variants) takes the stage as a relatively common name in France and England. We recently did an in-depth search for examples of Ava at the request of a reader, and were surprised at how few instances we found!
  5. Isabella: This Latin form of Isabel itself derives from Hebrew Elizabeth, via the Old Provençal form Elisabel, which was later interpreted as el Isabel ‘the Isabel’. The name first shows up in the 12th C, and while in some parts of Europe its connection to Elizabeth was quickly lost, in England even in the 16th C you can find examples of the same woman recorded in one context as Isabel and another as Elizabeth, and spellings such as Elizabella, Elsabel, etc., show the difficulty in confidently ascribing these forms to one name or the other.
  6. Mia: It’s not often one can point to a precise origin for the use of a name in the US, but Mia may be one such name. The first best-known example of the name is Mia Farrow, whose birthname was Maria. So far, we have found no evidence for this contracted form before 1600.
  7. Abigail: Abigail was essentially unused before the middle of the 16th C, and became quite popular, in certain circles, afterwards. It isn’t uncommon to find the name spelled with two ls during that period, which would make a lovely, slightly unusual variant spelling nowadays.
  8. Charlotte: There’s no doubt that the popularity of this name was influenced by the birth of a new princess, but interestingly, Charlotte itself is a relative late-comer into the pool of English names, first introduced in 1626 (see Withycombe s.n. Charlotte). It is a diminutive form of Carla, the feminine of Carl (cf. Charles), and can be found before 1600 in both France and Italian (though there this diminutive took the form Carlotta). It is curious, given how popular Charles was throughout the Middle Ages, how unpopular the feminine form appears to be.
  9. Harper: This is our first non-given-name (in origin, at least) on the list. Like Mason in the boys’ top 10, this surname was originally an occupational byname, deriving from Old English hearpere ‘harper’. The same byname can be found in England spelled Harp(o)ur, from Anglo-French harpour or Old French harpeor.

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An Onomastic Calendar: April

  • April 1: Eleanor of Aquitaine died in 1204.
  • April 2: Baldwin I of Jerusalem died in 1118.
  • April 3: Edward the Confessor was crowned king of England in 1042.
  • April 4: Francis Drake was knight for circumnavigating the world in 1581.
  • April 5: Isabella of Hainault, queen of France, was born in 1170.
  • April 6: Raphael, the Italian painter, died in 1520.
  • April 7: Empress Mathilda becomes Lady of the English in 1141.
  • April 8: Barbara of Hesse, Duchess of Württemberg-Mömpelgard, was born in 1536.
  • April 9: Lorenzo dei Medici died in 1492.
  • April 10: Gabrielle d’Estrées, mistress of Henry IV of France, died in 1599.
  • April 11: Stephen IV of Hungary died in 1165.
  • April 12: Antonio de Sangallo, Italian architect, was born in 1485.
  • April 13: Paul the Deacon, monk and historian, died in 799.
  • April 14: Abraham Ortelius, cartographer, was born in 1527.
  • April 15: Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452.
  • April 16: Adelaide del Vasto, queen consort of Jerusalem, died in 1118.
  • April 17: Bernard, king of the Lombards, died in 818.
  • April 18: Lucrezia Borgia was born in 1480.
  • April 19: Pope Leo IX died in 1054.
  • April 20: Pope Boniface VIII founded Sapienza Universita Roma in 1303.
  • April 21: Saint Anselm of Canterbury died in 1109.
  • April 22: Our editor in chief, Sara Uckelman, was born.
  • April 23: Dagobert III was crowned king of the Franks in 711.
  • April 24: William the Silent was born in 1533.
  • April 25: Sancho IV the Brave, king of Castille, died in 1295.
  • April 26: Simonetta Vespucci died in 1476.
  • April 27: Ferdinand Magellan died in 1521.
  • April 28: Edward IV of England was born in 1442.
  • April 29: Saint Catherine of Siena died in 1380.
  • April 30: Amalasuntha, queen of the Ostrogoths, died in 534/535.

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Masc/Fem names: When do they differ?

We mentioned in our previous post how Latin records are so nice for uniquely identifying the gender of the bearer of names — someone who is filius Edwini is the son of a man named Edwin, while if he were filius Edwine he’d be the some of a woman called Edwina.

But how often is this merely a requirement of Latin grammar, that every word have one of three grammatical genders, and how often is this reflective of the underlying vernacular practice? Naturally, this depends on what the vernaculars are, and those which descended from Latin (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese) are much more likely to keep an explicit grammatical distinction in the names. In Iberia, that shows up in the preponderance of women’s names ending in -a (though, of course, there are exceptions, such as Spanish and Catalan forms of Beatrice). In Italy, you see the same marking of feminine names, but often paired with a distinctive masculine ending in -o (as can be seen in the list of masculine/feminine pairs in 15th C Florence). In France, southern dialects tend towards Iberian practices, while in northern dialects, masculine names are generally unmarked, while feminine forms are derived by adding an -e (earlier) or doubling the final consonant and then adding an -e (later).

In England, however, the Latin forms often introduced distinctions not present in the vernacular. Withycombe, p. xxxv notes that:

Latin records of the 12th to 15th centuries show that the custom of giving masculine names to girls was also common in England; they appear in Latin with feminine endings, e.g., Philippa, Nicholaa, Alexandra, Jacoba, but it is clear that girls so named were in fact baptized and called Philip, Nicholas, Alexander, James, etc….Other names which were commonly used for girls were Gilbert, Aubrey, Reynold, Basil, Eustace, Giles, Edmund, Simon, Florence.

When the only references we have are in Latin, it is difficult to obtain evidence via which to test Withycombe’s assertion about the vernacular. However, once we start seeing records in Middle English and Early Modern English, then it is possible to see to what extent the feminine vernacular forms resemble the masculine.

The majority of our examples of Philipa in England are from the 16th C, and the majority of these are variants without the terminal (in fact, most of the examples with the -a are restricted to Devon, suggesting a regional early adoption of the Latin form as the vernacular.)

Feminine forms of Nicholas were never very common in England, and inspection of the entry for Nicole is only partly confirmatory of what Withycombe says. The vernacular forms have all lost the -a, but none of them have the -as. Instead, vernacular forms like Nichol and Nycoll look much more like the French feminine form of the name (and the spelling we took as the header name). This makes it more likely that girls named Nichol in the vernacular were named in accordance with the imported French form than simply given the masculine English form.

We don’t yet have any examples of Alexandra in England; Withycombe herself has only two early 13th C examples, adding that

Alexandra is found in England in 1205 and Alexandria in 1218, and these may have been named after a 4th-C martyr, though they are more likely to be mere latinizations of Alexander used as a girl’s name….Lyford 1655 gives Alexander as a f. name, and an early-14th-C English legendary gives Alisaundre as the name of the mother of St. Thomas of Canterbury

Further data will need to be collected to see more clearly how this feminine name appears in the vernacular.

Similarly, we have very few examples of Jacoba in English contexts, and curiously, all of them are diminutive forms: Jacobin, Jackett, and Jakett, all of which could equally easily be used by men.

Of the other names Withycombe mentions, only three of them do we have feminine examples from England. We have a handful of 12th-14th C examples of Basile in its Latin form Basilia, but our only vernacular example, in the 16th C, is not Basil but Basile, the usual French form. Eustacia in the vernacular is Eustice. The third name, Florence, is curious in that we have plenty of vernacular feminine examples of this spelling, — but no masculine ones! In fact, vernacular forms of the masculine version tend to end in -t, e.g., Florent.

It wasn’t until the end of the 16th C that you regularly start seeing Latinate forms, like Olivia, Isabella, Joanna, etc., instead of Olive, Isabel, Joan, etc., used in the vernacular. This is due in no small part to the influence of Shakespeare on English naming patterns at the turn of the 17th C, as he preferred Italian or Latinate forms of names in many cases. This penchant for the Latin -a ending can still be seen today, with the preponderance of feminine names given in English-speaking countries being ones ending with that letter or sound.

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Nicknames: The diversity of Italy

We’ll report on the DMNES team’s trip to Bolzano in an upcoming post, but today we’re going to investigate Italy in a different way!

While Italy may not have the highest percentage of nicknames of the geographical areas that the Dictionary currently covers, but it definitely has the most diverse. While other cultures tend to form nicknames by either truncating names into hypocoristics or by adding a diminutive suffix, both practices are mixed indiscriminately in Italian names — a name can first be truncated into a hypocoristic form, then augmented with a diminutive suffix, and then truncated again, and maybe augmented again, to the point where tracing from a nickname back to its root form is an exciting, and sometimes impossible, task. For example, take Giovanni, the standard Florentine form of John. In data from Florence and environs between 1282 and 1532 [1], more than 20 different forms of this name can be found, most of the nicknames:

  • Simple hypocoristics: Nanni, Vanni
  • Simple diminutives: Gianaccimo, Giovannanto, Giovannino, Giovannozzo
  • Diminutives of hypocoristics/Hypocoristics of diminutives: Nozzo, Vaccino, Vaccio, Vannozzo, Vannino, Vannuccio
  • Diminutives of diminutives: Giovacchino

For example, Giovanni > Giovannozzo > Vannozzo > Nozzo, takes the root name, adds a diminutive suffix, truncates it, and truncates it again. Looking at any individual step, the path is clear: But looking at the first and the last, few people who don’t know the interim would believe that Nozzo is a nickname of Giovanni!

Another name which shows similar complexity in the construction of nicknames is Iacopo or Giacomo (Jacob). From Giacomo you can get to Giacomino, and from there to Mino. From Iacopo or Giacoppo, you can get to Iacopozzo and Coppo. Puccio is a hypocoristic of Iacopuccio, a diminutive. But the strangest nickname is one that doesn’t fall neatly into the hypocoristic/diminutive distinction we’ve bee working with: Lapo. It comes from Iacopo by truncating it and then changing the initial consonant/vowel cluster. From Lapo we then get Lapaccio, Lapaccino, Lapone, Lapuccio (a hypocoristic of which is again Puccio). Just as the route from Giovanni to Nozzo isn’t immediately obviously, neither is the route from Iacopo to Lapaccino!

Diminutives are generally straightforward to identify the root name of, since all they do is augment another name. Hypocoristics which are formed by cutting off the final part of the name are likewise relatively straightforward. But hypocoristics which are formed by cutting off the first syllable or two of a name often become impossible to identify the root name, for there are many possibilities. We mention two examples: Rigo and Bello. Rigo or Rico can be a hypocoristic of Arrigo, F(r)ederico, Rodrigo, etc., while Bello can either be a standalone name in its own right (from Latin bellus ‘beautiful, fair’) or a nickname of any name ending in -b- or -p- augmented by the diminutive suffix -ello, such as Jacobello or Spinalbello. Similar ambiguities show up on the feminine side; Bella can be a standalone name in its own right, or a hypocoristic of Jacobella (Jacoba), Isabella, Bellaflor, or any of other various names beginning with Bella-.

The diversity of Italian nicknames is also evidenced by the variety of diminutive suffixes which are in use — but we will save them for another post as they show up in French and Spanish as well, as they are ultimately from Latin. The month is drawing to a close and there is so much more left to explore — we may have to pick nicknames up again as a monthly topic in the New Year!


Notes

[1] Online Tratte of Office Holders 1282-1532 (Brown University, Rhode Island), http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/tratte/.

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