Tag Archives: Noah

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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Some very special Biblical forms of names

York Gospels

York Gospels, York Minster, © Sara L. Uckelman, 2017

One of the long-term adjunct projects of the Dictionary is to look at how various names are spelled in the earliest vernacular translations of the Bible, because these translations had a significant influence on how the names were spelled when they were used in common currency. Because there are so many Biblical names and so many vernacular translations produced before 1600, added the citations to the relevant entries is an on-going process; we can generally add the Middle English forms from the Wycliffite translation of 1395 right at the start because there is a handy online searchable version of it available. For other Biblical names, we are slowly working through the alphabet adding for (cf., e.g., Aaron, which has forms from the Wycliffite Bible, the Geneva Bible of 1560, and in the next edition will have citations from the Sagrados Escrituras of 1569).

The vast majority of the time, the DMNES editors do data collection for the Dictionary via printed editions; we simply do not have the time, volunteer power, or money to work solely with manuscripts. But every once in awhile, we do get to have an encounter with a manuscript that has names in it, and last weekend on a trip to York, our editor-in-chief had a manuscript encounter which involved both early Bibles and names. In the undercroft of York minster, the York Gospels are on display. The Minster’s website says of the Gospels:

The York Gospels were brought to York in around 1020 by Archbishop Wulfstan and the 1,000 year old text is still used in services today. The Anglo-Saxon book is one of the most valuable in York Minster’s collection and is one of the few surviving items from the Saxon Minster, the location for which is unknown today.

It contains four Gospels rather than the whole bible and is filled with elaborate illustrations as well as a letter from King Canute dated around 1019. It’s believed its original pages were written in Canterbury in around 990AD, with additional pages added to the manuscript by the Dean and Chapter after they arrived in York.

The Gospels are currently on display in the cathedral’s Revealing York Minster in the Undercroft attraction. The book is stored behind glass but visitors can turn virtual pages of the book to take a closer look at some of the illuminated pages using touch screen displays adjacent to the case.

Often when a manuscript Bible is on display, a page with a fancy illuminated initial, or a whole-page picture, are chosen; these are the eye-catching ones that display the true beauty and skill of medieval artwork. But the York Gospel has a rather plain and simple spread on display, something that might seem boring or ordinary to the average viewer.

But to the onomast?

The page that’s on display contains part of the genealogy of Jesus, and thus it gives us first-hand knowledge of how scribes rendered these names in Latin in the 10th C.

What could be more beautiful?

…who was of Aram, who was of Efrom, who was of Phares, who was of Iudea, who was of Iacob, who was of Isaac, who was of Abraha, who was of Thare, who was of Nachor, who was of Seruch, who was of Ragau, who was of Phaleg, who was of Eber, who was of Sala, who was of Cainan, who was of Arfaxat, who was of Sem, who was of Noe, who was of Lamech, who was of Matusale, who was of Enoh, who was of Iared, who was of Malalehel, who was of Chainan, who was of Enos, who was of Seth, who was of Adam, who was of God.

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Monthly topic: Medieval roots of modern names, part 1

Though we may be all about the medieval names at DMNES central, this is, for most of us, because we are interested in names in general, medieval or modern. So it should be no surprise that one of the highlights of the onomastic year is when the US Social Security releases their baby name data for the previous year. These lists are always a curious mix of the eminently traditional and the bizarrely modern, and there is little way to predict where a name will occur in the list on the basis of which of these two camps it most falls in. We thought we’d spend time this month looking at the names in the top 1000 and tracing back their origins. Are the new-fangled ones as new as they seem? What are some variations people could consider if they want a different twist on an old-fashioned name?

We’ll start in this post with the top 10 boy’s names:

  1. Noah: Number one name Noah is part of a venerable tradition of taking names from the Bible, but as we’ve discussed before. The name was used rarely in medieval England due to the mystery plays, but only became popular at the end of the 16th C.
  2. Liam: Liam is one of those name which is not medieval but derives from medieval origins. It is a diminutive of Uilliam, the Gaelic form of William which was in use since the Anglo-Normans invaded in the 12th century. However, the truncated form didn’t arise until after the 16th C was over.
  3. Mason: Originally an occupational byname, this derives from Old French maçon, masson ‘mason’.
  4. Jacob: This name and number seven below have, even more than Noah, a venerable history of use. Jacob can be found throughout Europe, while James is a distinctly English form of the name, even though in origin it derives from the Latinized French form Jacomus, which became Jacme in the vernacular.
  5. William: This is one of the few names of Germanic origin that not only didn’t fall out of use over the course of the 11th and 12th C, but became, if anything more popular. From William to Guillaume to Wilhelm to Guglielmo, the name adapted itself depending on the vernacular in which it was used. It also gave rise to a plethora of nicknames, including recognizably-modern ones like Will to unusual forms like Willick, Willeke, Wilquin, and Guilemon.
  6. Ethan: This Biblical name has always been more popular in the US than elsewhere, due to the fame of the Revolutionary hero Ethan Allen. We don’t yet any examples of the name, but given the trend for adopting obscure Biblical names that we’ve documented before, we would not be surprised to find some post-1550 examples in French, English, or Dutch.
  7. James: While James may be a distinctly English form of the name, it still has equal right to be called a Biblical name: This is how Jacob’s name was spelled in the Wycliffite translation of the Bible into English from 1395.
  8. Alexander: Another name which has been a classic for millenia, ever since one of the greatest military figures the world has ever seen swept onto the stage. The etymological origin of the name, deriving from Greek elements meaning ‘I defend’ and ‘mankind’, has also contributed to the popularity of the name. Medieval nicknames tend to differ from the standard modern Alex, with Sander, <Sanders, Zander, Sandry, Saßa, and Sandrin found in German, Dutch, English, French, and other contexts.
  9. Michael: Another name of Biblical origin. This name was popular throughout Europe, and, interestingly, it was so without having been the name of a pope, other major religious figure, or a king.
  10. Benjamin: Like Noah, Benjamin is an Old Testament name whose common use dates to the 16th C.


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Protestant names: Old Testament influences on men’s names (part 3)

In this post we finish up looking at Old Testament names, and whether we can see evidence of correlation between Protestant influence and the use of these names by men in the Middle Ages. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Manasses: This name, the name of a patriarch and a king of Judah, seems almost designed to ruin all of our hypotheses. It is a relatively obscure Biblical name, and yet we have no 16th C citations of it (yet). Instead, the name was moderately common in France in the 12th and 13th C, with a few examples earlier and a few examples later.

Meshach (entry available in next edition): The second of the three brothers who visited the fiery furnace in the book of Daniel (we saw the first one two posts ago, and the third shows up later in this list), Meshach was spelled Misaac and Mysaac in the Wycliffite Bible of 1395, and the former spelling is also the French spelling; we have one instance of Misaac in Caen in 1563.

Mordechai (entry available in next edition): The name of the father of Esther, we have one example of the name in 16th C France.

Moses (entry available in next edition): Moses wasn’t unheard of in England before the 16th C, its use amongst non-Jews attributable to the popularity of the story of Moses in medieval mystery plays. But in the 16th C, all our examples come from Protestant contexts, with one exception — a Swedish citation of Moisze in 1582. Was this Moisze a Jew? Was he a Protestant? Neither? Who knows!

Nathan: The name of a number of Old Testament characters, we have one example of Nathan in 16th C England.

Noah: Bardsley notes (p. 35) that this name was used in England prior to the Reformation as a result of the medieval mystery plays, but we have not yet collected any English examples. The two examples from 16th C Caen clearly reflect the pattern under investigation.

Sampson: This name was moderately common in France and English in the 12th C, due in part to the 6th C Welsh Saint Sampson who travelled from Wales to Brittany. After a period of reduced use, the name shows up again at the end of the 16th C.

Samuel: The name of the eponymous character of two OT books, Samuel was quite popular among Jews, and the 12th C examples of the name in England that we have are likely borne by Jews. The name experienced a resurgence in French, Dutch, and English contexts in the 16th C.

Shadrach: The third brother from the fiery furnace, our single example of this name was not identified as such until we researched how the name shows up in early vernacular Bible. In the Wycliffite Bible of 1395, the name is spelled Sidrac, which our identifictation of the 1583 English citation of Sidrack that we have certain.

Solomon: The son of King David and author of the Proverbs and some of the Psalms, his name was nearly as popular as his father’s name throughout the Middle Ages; in comparison with other Old Testament names, this name saw a reduction in use in England in the 16th C.

Uriah: The name of a number of minor OT characters, this name was spelled in a variety of ways — Urie, Vrie, and Vrye in the Wycliffite Bible, and Ury, Urye, and Urias (like Josias and Elias that we’ve seen earlier) in 16th C England.

Zachary: This name could be treated as either an OT or a NT name, since it shows up in both, the name of a prophet in the former and the father of John the Baptist in the latter. This name was not exclusive to the 16th C, and what is most curious about it is not when and where it was used, but how it was spelled when it was! The early medieval form in England dropped the Z-, leading to Latin spellings such as Acharias and Middle English spellings such as Acris. Not many names have variants at both the beginning and the end of the alphabet!

With this we’ve come to the end of our tour of the influence of the Old Testament on men’s names in Protestant contexts. Next up: The New Testament!


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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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