Tag Archives: Oliver

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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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.

Romance

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.)

Germanic

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.

Hybrid

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 11-25 for boys

Having covered the top 10 in our previous two posts, we now go through the names in a bit quicker fashion. In this post we cover names 11-25 from the boy’s list, grouping them together according to origin.

Biblical: Elijah (no. 11) is almost unheard of in the Middle Ages in this form — instead, it was the form Elias, influenced by the Greek spelling of the name, that was extremely common, particularly in England and France, giving rise to the English vernacular Ellis. Daniel (no. 12) was used throughout Europe from a relatively early period, but it wasn’t until the 16th C that it became popular. The Old Testament is definitely the favored part of the Bible for this group of names, with four more drawn from there. David (no. 18) has enjoyed widespread popularity, showing up as the name of early Welsh and Anglo-Saxon saints and of two 14th C kings of Georgia (the country, not the state). The name was especially popular in Wales where it gave rise to a plethora of nicknames, of which Dio would be a fun alternative to re-introduce into modern use. Joseph (no. 21) is rather like Daniel: Found throughout Europe but never especially popular. Unlike Daniel, however, it didn’t enjoy a boost in use by the Puritans, likely for the same reasons that Mary was not especially preferred. Gabriel (no. 22) is a strange one; it shows up in France and Italy from the 14th C, but was almost unheard of before then, and it was not common in England at all until the 16th C. In contrast, Samuel (no. 23) was for the most part more popular in England then elsewhere.

Moving on to the New Testament, two of the gospel writers are featured: Matthew (no. 15) and Lucas (no. 16). The former was rare before the 12th C but afterwards became quite common all over Europe, and in a wide variety of forms. Lucas is the Latinized form of the name, but it was also found in the vernacular, being the spelling used in the Wycliffite translation of the Bible into English from 1395. Lucas was also the preferred Middle French spelling, and a handful of examples in Spanish and German are also known.

Irish: Aiden (no. 13) is an anglicized form of Old and Middle Irish Áedán/Early Modern Irish Aodhán, which is traditionally identified as a diminutive of the O/MIr áed ‘fire’. Áedán was a popular name in early Ireland, and the plethora of saints named this (including one who went as a missionary to northern England and founded the monastery of Lindisfarne, not far from where the DMNES headquarters are located!) has contributed to the revival of the name in the 20th C. We do not yet have any examples of the name in the Dictionary, but that is because of some of the unique problems that the main sources for Irish names — the Irish annals — present in our contexts. We’ve got a blog post brewing on that topic, as we may have figured out at least part of a solution recently.

Surnames: In this category we have three surnames, one originally deriving from a place name, one from a patronymic byname, and one from an occupation. While all of these names have medieval roots, none of them were used as given names in the Middle Ages. Logan (no. 14) derives from a number of places known by this name, the most important being Logan in East Ayrshire, Scotland. Jackson (no. 17) quite literally means ‘son of Jack’, with Jack being a diminutive of John found in England from the 13th C. The surname of occupation Carter (no. 24) derives from Latin carettarius, Old North French caretier, Middle English cart(e) (of Scandinavian origin) + -er, or Old French charetier, all meaning ‘charioteer, carter’, or the like. The byname arrived in England with the Normans and the Danes.

Miscellaneous: The three that don’t fit in any other category are an eclectic mix. First there is Oliver (no. 19). Many people have suggested is related to Latin oliva ‘olive’ but this hypothesis is not well supported. A more plausible alternative is that it is a gallicization of Scandinavian Olafr, which arrived in France with the Vikings. Indeed, the first examples we see are in France and England in the 12th C, about when you’d expect the Northman name pool to have become the Norman name pool. The name was also much less common in places that were not significantly influenced by the Vikings.

Next we have Jayden (no. 20), the first name in this list that has no identifiable medieval origins of any kind. The name came into use in the US in 1994, and its origins before that are murky.

Finally, Anthony (no. 25) is the only name on the list of Roman origin. It was the name of a Roman gens, and is itself possibly of Etruscan origin. One might expect that names of Roman inheritance to be most popular in Italy — and indeed we have a number of Italian examples — but the popularity of the 4th C Saint Anthony ensured that the name spread widely throughout Europe.

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