Tag Archives: Stella

Nature names: Sun, stars, and sky

Let’s turn our attention from the trees and the forests up to the heavens! In this post we consider names with linguistic roots in the celestial.


We’ve talked about Stella on the blog before, as an example of a name which many people think is modern, but which has actually been in use since at least the 15th C. It’s identical with the Latin word for ‘star’.

The origin of the Biblical name Esther is disputed, but one possible origin is the Persian word for ‘star’. This is a canonical example of a Protestant name, coming into use in the 16th C in French, Dutch, and English contexts.

The sun

Old Breton sul ‘sun’ (related to Latin sol) was a common prototheme in compound Breton names. We have examples of Sulhoiarn, Sulwal, and Sulwored (coming out in the next edition), as well as the monothematic name Sulon.

Next we have another Biblical name, Sampson, deriving from a Hebrew word for the sun. This name was surprisingly popular in France and England in the 12th century, though it was used sporadically in other times and places.

In this context let’s include names relating to dawn and sunrise: Orienta and Aurisma are both found in early 9th C France, and have etymological connections with dawn.

The heavens

The heavens generally are the root of two masc/fem pairs of names of Latin origin: Celeste and Celestus, and their derivatives Celestina and Celestine

Gods and goddesses

Lastly, we have two names which are connected to celestial phenomenon via the name of a god or goddess. The popular Welsh name Llywellyn derives from two god names, the second being the name of a sun god perhaps related to Apollo. The feminine name Tamar has two distinct origin; the examples we have so far represent the Biblical name of Hebrew origin, but the name also occurs in Georgia as the name of a sky goddess.

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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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“Made-Up” Names

People who study contemporary baby names often like to talk about “made-up” names, whether unusual names found in late 20th and early 21st C America or more “traditional” made up names coming from late 19th and early 20th C literature. Now, if you think about it, all names are, at the root, “made-up”. But if you want to make a distinction between names which are drawn from identifiable word or concept — for example, Bona (Latin ‘good’) or Heather (a plant word) — and names which are constructed without regard for their meaning, such as Germanic Everbern deriving from themes meaning ‘boar’ and ‘bear’, or dithematic names which are constructed on the basis of the themes of the parents’ names, for example when Aclehardus and Teudhildis have a son named Teuthardus and a daughter named Aclehildis, then you could argue that the latter are ones that are truly “made-up” in the relevant sense.

But just as there are many names which people think are medieval but in fact are modern, many names which people think are modern coinages actually have a much older history. When I came across this article, on 17 Baby Names You Didn’t Know Were “Totally Made Up”, a few days ago, I was surprised at how many of these so-called modern “made-up” names are actually not.

Wendy: The received wisdom is that J.M. Barrie coined this name for Peter Pan. In fact, a Wendy Oxford was christened in 1615 in Harston, Cambridge, England. So, not quite medieval, but far older than the 20th C.

Cedric: Like Wendy, this is commonly cited as a coinage of Sir Walter Scott for Ivanhoe. It, too, goes back to (at least) the early 17th C. Cedric Holle was christened in 1613 in Plymouth, Devon, England, and Cedric Jorye was christened in 1626 in the same city.

Miranda: This name occurs in Périgueux, France, in 1366-1367.

Amanda: This name can be found in England in 1221.

Dorian: This name can be found in Paris, France, in 1421 — where it occurs as a feminine name, rather than a masculine one.

Cora: Cora and the diminutive Corina are both found in Imola, Italy, in 1312. The name Corella, found in Valencia in 1510, may also be a diminutive of Cora.

In the comments on the article, someone offers Stella as another modern coinage; but Stella can be found in Rome in 1527.

So there’s a brief round up of names which many people think are modern, but which are actually medieval (or at least early 17th C).


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