Tag Archives: Jacoba

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!


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

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Nicknames: Feminine diminutive suffixes in medieval German

In today’s post, we take a look at an area which has an amazing diversity of diminutive suffixes used in women’s names: medieval Germanic dialects (including Dutch ones from the Low Countries, because of their close kinship with Low German suffixes).

In terms of the vocabulary that we introduced in our previous post, German feminine nicknames were, for the most part, formed by adding such diminutive suffixes, rather than creating a hypocoristic form by truncating it (there are a few exceptions, such as Els, from Elizabeth, and Greta from Margaret.) These diminutive suffixes varied by dialect and by region, making it possible to identify, sometimes with a high level precision, where a name comes from on the basis of the type of suffix that it uses. So let’s start by taking a look at the distribution of the various dialects, and their divisions into Low German, Middle (Central) German, and High (Upper) German:


Starting in the south, High German dialects are typified by diminutives formed from -lin, including variants such as Swiss -li and Bavarian -el or -l. Examples of names formed with this diminutive suffix include Aͤnnlin, Aͤnlin, Aͤndlin, and Bridlin, Elsslin, and Bettlin, diminutives of Anne, Brid (Bridget), and Elizabeth (respectively) found in Rottweil, Baden-Württemberg, in 1441. [1] From the same source, we also have Keterlin, Kaͤtherlin, Kaͤterlin, diminutives of Katherine. These particular examples, from Rottweil, are likely examples of -lin added to a hypocoristic of Katherine, but other examples, from further south and east, may involve the Bavarian or Austrian diminutive -erl plus -lin.

-lin and -lyn are typical of Middle High German; it wasn’t until the shift into Early New High German that the spelling -lein starts to appear, such as Marlein (from Mary), Grethlein (from Margaret), Ketherlein (from Katherine), and Elßlein (from Elizabeth), all found in Kulmbach in 1495. [3]

People are often surprised to find nicknames in medieval records, since there can be a misconception that the only things that made it into medieval documents were the formal forms of names. Certainly it is the case that there were probably many more nicknames in use than the documentary evidence displays. The examples we have in written records were almost certainly predated by spoken examples, perhaps by centuries. But nicknames were not wholly excluded from formal documents: If this was the form of the name that the person was known by, this would’ve been the form used to refer to him in a record. As it turns out, the suffix -lin or -lyn are relatively old: German masculine examples can be found in Latinized contexts from the 13th C, including Choncelinus 1280 and Cunzelin 1294 (from Conrad), Reinboldelinus 1286 (from Reinbald), and Volfelinus c. 1236 (from Wolf). [2] But we’ll say more about masculine nicknames in another post! Another diminutive suffix whose use can be dated to at least the 13th C is -i, in the feminine names Beli 1267 and Jutzci 1295. [2]

In Low German, -ke(n) and its derivative are typical, found also in the Low Countries, and connected to Slavic -ka. (Diminutives of -ke also stretch further north, being found in Scandinavia.) While we have more examples of this suffix used with men’s names than women’s names, this is primarily an artifact of our data (containing more men’s names than women’s), rather than reflecting anything about the reality of the use of the suffix by women. Examples of this from across the Low German-speaking spectrum include An(n)eke (from Anne), found in Estonia and Latvia, Heilka, a diminutive of some name beginning with Old High German heil, hele ‘whole’ found in the mid 12th C, and Kattryneke, also found in Latvia. In the Low Countries, we can see examples such as Saerken (from Sara), Aelken (from Alice), Neelken (from Cornelia) [4], Claerken (from Clara), Grietken (from Margaret), Mariken (from Mary), Jacomynken (a double diminutive from Jacomine, a variant of Jacoba via the form Jacoma) [5] as well as Tanneken (from Anne), a variant which we just found an example of amongst the Dutch Protestant community in London in the 16th C.

In between these, -chen is characteristic of Middle German dialects, and it is a cousin of another Dutch diminutive, -ge(n). Most of our examples of this, so far, come from the Low Countries, with names like Claertgen (from Clara), Aeltgen (from Alice), Grietgen (from Margaret), Ariaentgen and Adriaentgen (from Adriana), and Maritgen, Marijtgen, and Marrijtgen from (from Mary) [6].


[1] Mack, Eugen, Das Rottweiler Steuerbuch von 1441. Königsfestgabe des Rottweiler Geschichts und Altertumsvereins unter der Schirmherrschaft Seiner Majestät König Wilhelms II von Württemberg. (Tübingen, H. Laupp, 1917.), pp. 126-151

[2] Socin, Adolf, Mittelhochdeutsches Namenbuch. Nach oberrheinischen Quellen des 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts (Basel: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1903; Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1966), pp. 10, 31, 48-9, 52-3, 63, 174.

[3] Wilhelm Lederer, Kulmbacher Einwohner 1495, in: Geschichte am Obermain Band 3, Jahresgabe 1965/66, Lichtenfels, S. 71-81.

[4] Daniel van der Meulen, Brieven en Andere Bescheiden Betreffende Daniel Van der Meulen, 1584-1600: Deel 1, Augustus 1584-September 1585, (‘s-Gravenhage : M. Nijhoff, 1986-)

[5] Fonds Plaiser, Antwerpsch Archievenblad.

[6] van de Spiegel, Ronald & Frans van Rooijen, “Kohieren van Het Weekgeld 1573” (http://www.interphrase.nl/frans/FransWeb/Archivalia/WEEKGE.INL.htm)


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Nicknames: Some general remarks

The category “nicknames” covers a multitude of types of names, so in this post we’ll outline the scope of this month’s topic and define some terminology.

Nicknames can either be given names — for example, Johnny as a nickname for John — or descriptives added to given names, such as the Red or English or Small. Since the DMNES is a dictionary of given names, we’ll be focusing on nicknames of the former type.

When discussing nicknames of given names, a number of different phrases are used more or less equivalently — nickname, ekename, diminutive, pet name, pet form, hypocoristic, etc. For the most part, there isn’t anything to be gained by rigorously separating, but we will find use of one distinction: A hypocoristic is a nickname formed by truncating or reducing the radiconym (the root name) while a diminutive is one that augments the radiconym (which may itself be a hypocoristic!) with one or more diminutive suffices. Taking our example of Johnny above, it would be classified as a diminutive, by adding the diminutive suffix -i to the radiconym John. As another example, Gwen is a hypocoristic of Gwendolyn (as well as of other names), while Gwennie is a diminutive of that.

One thing to note immediately is that when an abstract diminutive suffix is added to a name, both it and the root name itself may change in spelling — as happens when in English we get Johnny and Gwennie instead of Johni and Gweni. But how and when this happens is very much language-specific: For if we were speaking of German rather than English, Gweni is exactly the way that diminutive of Gwen is spelled.

Another thing to note is that whether a nickname is a hypocoristic or a diminutive will affect the chances we have of confidently identifying the root name. When a nickname is formed by truncating a larger name, it’s quite common for the discriminatory part of the name to be lost. For example, Bella can be a hypocoristic of any of various names — Isabella, Jacobella, Riobella, or even Sibyl. On the other hand, when a nickname is formed by adding to or augmenting another name, the original name is retained and so is easy to identify.

Different cultures will have different patterns of proportions of hypocoristics vs. diminutives, and they will also have different types of diminutive suffices that they use. We will look at all of these aspects when we investigate nicknames, culture by culture!


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NaNoWriMo: Balancing truth and accessibility

In our first post on this month’s monthly topic, we discussed two easy ways in which authors of historical fiction can improve the historicity of the names they use. In this post, we tackle the specific problems that attend to certain periods and cultures, offering suggestions for how to balance truth (i.e., historical authenticity) and accessibility (i.e., the reader’s enjoyment of the work). [1]

Certainly periods and cultures are easier to handle than others; a writer of novels set in 16th C England will have a surfeit of familiar names to choose from — names that have remained in use in English-speaking contexts and could easily be found on the streets, in the classrooms, and in the boardrooms of today. Populating such a novel with John, Alice, Margaret, Henry, William, and Robert not only results in accurately named characters, but it also results in characters whose names are accessible to the reader.

But supposing you’re writing about the Holy Roman Empire in the late 12th and early 13th C. There are a surfeit of records from this period, but they are predominantly in Latin, not in the vernacular. Four possibilities present themselves: (1) Use the Latinate forms of the names, (2) attempt to reconstruct plausible vernaculars, (3) use modern vernaculars, (4) use modern English forms. Each of these have their pros and cons, and which option is the most suitable will depend on a large part in how you wish to balance truth and accessibility, that is, how authentic do you wish to be while not putting off those readers who are not versed in medieval languages or names. For example, writing about the late 12th C Holy Roman Emperor, one could call him (1) Fridericus, (2) Friderich, (3) Friedrich, or (4) Frederick.

(1) This option weights truth over accessibility. It guarantees that you’re using name forms that are appropriate for the time and place, but having every man’s name ending in -us can not only come across to the reader as pretentious (using an archaic form of language nowadays primarily restricted to academic and legal contexts), it can also make it difficult for readers to differentiate the characters on the basis of their names, when they names are functionally too similar.

(2) This option probably strikes the onomast’s perfect balance, but it is also the option that is the most difficult to exercise for those who don’t have specialist knowledge in medieval languages. Unless you’re going to keep a professional linguist or onomast on retainer as a Subject Matter Expert [2], this option may not be feasible – but below we will offer some suggestions.

(3) This option probably strikes the author’s perfect balance, ensuring that the names being used are names that are appropriate for the place and period, even if the specific spelling or form is modern. The standard modern forms of names in non-English European languages – such as Hans, Friedrich, Heinrich, etc. – are likely to be familiar to readers even if they only know or speak English, making the names accessible.

(4) This option weights accessibility over truth. The names become wholly assimilated to the most accessible form, regardless of its appropriateness for the time period and culture in question. One difficulty that can arise with taking this option is the handling of names that don’t have a modern equivalent; these will never be maximally accessible because they will not be familiar to those who are not otherwise historically-versed.

As is clear, each of these options has different trade-offs. The most important thing is not which option is chosen, but that whichever option is chosen, it is followed uniformly and consistently!

In closing we’ll address a few comments to the author who is in (3) but wants to move towards (2), without necessarily keeping an expert on retainer. Of course, we cannot give any recommendations that will be universal across any culture, but we can offer a few pointers:

  • Relational bynames: Most cultures used relational bynames of one type or another, and they are more common the earlier the period. Determine what the appropriate relational markers are for the vernacular of your place (e.g., merch ‘daughter’ and map ‘son’ for Old Welsh; ingen ‘daughter’ and mac ‘son’ for early Gaelic, both Scottish and Irish; di ‘of’ in Italian), as well as any grammatical changes that the relative’s name might undergo following one of these words.
  • Extrapolate: If Friderich is a plausible vernacular form of 12th C Fridericus, then what might Henricus become? If Bernier is a plausible vernacular form of 12th C Bernerus, what might Garnerus or Warnerus become?
  • Diminutives: Extrapolation also works for diminutives. If you’ve found Imeldina, Jacobina, and Franciscina in 14th C Italy, then what might be plausible diminutives of Thomasa and Anthonia?

Sometimes, very small adjustments can result in a big difference!


[1] Throughout this post, and indeed this series, we’re going to assume that the authors we’re advising are writing in English. Of course, our advice can easily be adapted to people writing in other languages.

[2] Some authors do! And any author who is interested in doing so, the DMNES staff is always happy to receive queries and do consulting.


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