Tag Archives: Tabitha

Looking into history: Unexpected finds

In this post, we take a look at some of the names in the ONS girls’ names data from England and Wales (up through the first 300) which may surprise some people by turning up in the Middle Ages.

First up is no. 41 Imogen — historically thought to have first appeared post-1600 as a typo in a Shakespearean play, the name has an alternative history, dating back to medieval Germany.

Ancient Greek name Penelope (no. 48) came into use in England in the 16th, part of a fad for classical names. (Nickname Penny (no. 198) is more modern, though.)

No. 65 Ada has an old-fashioned feel to it — but did you know it’s roots go back at least to the 9th C in France?

Biblical names Lydia (no. 130), Leah (no. 136), Esther (no. 173), Naomi (no. 178), Rebecca (no. 186), Tabitha (no. 204), Lois (no. 215), and Rachel (no. 323) became popular amongst French, Dutch, and English Protestants in the 16th C, as did virtue names like Faith (no. 135). Interestingly, Hope (no. 139) is a virtue name that we haven’t yet found any pre-1600 examples of, though Esperanza from Latin sperantia ‘hope’ is found in 15th-16h C Spain and Italy (but not in the ONS data!)

Modern name Ottilie (no. 164) is a variant of medieval Odile, popular in France especially in the diminutive form Odelina.

No. 169 Laura first became popular after Petrarch as the poetic name for his love; it spread from Italy to France, Italy, and England over the 14th and 15th centuries.

Here’s a surprising one: Maia (no. 176). The DMNES entry is still in draft form, but we have two Low German examples from the 16th century; variant Maja (no. 192) is not an unreasonable alternative medieval spelling.

French-origin name Amy (no. 189) was popular in England from the 14th C onwards.

No. 196 Alba occurs in Catalan in the early 16th C.

Golden name Aurelia (no. 212) was used in Renaissance Italy. While name no. 361 Sapphire is generally interpreted as a gem name, when the medieval form Sapphira was used in 16th C England, it was more likely in reference to the New Testament character.

Did you know that Alana (no. 216) is a medieval name? It’s the Latin feminine form of Alan, and appears rarely. (Variants that add extra ls or ns or hs, such as Alannah (no. 472), Alanna (no. 650), Allana (no. 1788), Alanah (no. 1887), and Allanah (no. 3178) and compounds like Alana-Rose (no. 2901) and Alana-Rae (no. 5666) are not generally medieval.)

Nickname Effie (no. 236), usually a pet form of Euphemia (no. 4684), shows up in 16th C England (as does the full name itself) — a rare instance of an -ie or -y diminutive ending in medieval England!

Name no. 243, Talia we have examples of in 13th and 16th C Italy; there’s no entry for the name yet, as the etymological origin of the name is uncertain.

Names of classical gods and goddesses became popular in the Renaissance, including Diana (no. 275) found in both England and Italy (Diane (no. 3178) is a French form; Dianna (no. 3985) and Dyana (no. 48684) are modern forms). In general, the Latin names were preferred over the Greek — which means while we don’t have Athena (no. 239), Atene (no. 5666), Athene (no. 5666) (or the compound Athena-Rose, no. 4684) in the DMNES data, we do have Minerva (no. 2187). (The compound Diana-Elena (no. 5666) is also modern.)

Modern-day Melody (no. 312) is found in the Latin form Melodia in England during the fad for fanciful Latinate names in the 13th C. It’s during this period that we also find Amanda (no. 602).

Name no. 213 Remi shows up in medieval France — but as a masculine name, not a feminine name. Similarly, Alexis (no. 323) can be found right across Europe, but only as a man’s name.

The roots of Christmas name Natalie (no. 354) go all the way back to the early Middle Ages — it shows up multiple times in the 9th C, which makes it an incredibly well-witnessed early French feminine name!

We’ll tackle names from no. 400 down in a future post.


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Protestant names: New Testament influences on women’s names

Having completed the Old Testament, we now move on to the New Testament. When Bardsley discusses the rise of what he identifies as a specifically Puritan naming system (though we have already begun to argue against this in our first post on the topic), he labels the trend “the Hebrew invasion” [1], giving the impression that it was names of Hebrew origin, specifically, that were being taken from the Bible. When we look to the New Testament, we see that this is not the case: Plenty of Greek and Aramaic names were first adopted in the second half of the 16th C. Accordingly, we divide the women’s names that we look at into those of Hebrew origin and those not.

Names of Hebrew origin

Anne: This name could be classified as either an Old Testament name or a New Testament name. In the OT, this was the name of the mother of Samuel (more often modernly transliterated as Hannah); in the apocrypha, Anne is usually identified as the mother of Mary, though she is not named explicitly in the NT. Whatever the origin and whatever the spelling, this name was always common; it was, in fact, one of the most common feminine names throughout all of Europe throughout the Middle Ages, due primarily to the early veneration of the mother of Mary. The name was so well entrenched that the Protestant turning away from the veneration of the saints did not cause any reduction in its popularity.

Elizabeth: The name of Mary’s cousin, this name, too, was popular throughout the Middle Ages. In England, the popularity of the name was maintained in the latter part of the 16th C, with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Joan: Many people may not realize that this is in fact a Biblical name, the name of a woman healed by Jesus and who later accompanied him as a disciple. She was later venerated as a saint, but it was the use of this name by many medieval queens, in addition to the “Maid of Orleans”, Joan of Arc, that helped the name maintain its place as one of the most popular women’s names throughout history.

Martha: This is the first of the names in this post which was not already in common currency by the 16th C. The name was used occasionally throughout Europe, but it shows a sharp increase in use in England and France in the 16th C.

Mary: The name of the mother of Jesus, Mary was one of the earliest adopted of all the Christian names; examples can be found in France as early as the beginning of the 9th C. The same root which gave rise to Mary is also found in the Old Testament, in the name of the sister of Moses, modernly usually spelled Miriam. While the use of Mary cannot be used to differentiate Catholics from Protestants in the 16th C, the single example of Mariam (used as a nominative form, and not to be confused with Mariam, the Latin accusative of Maria) that we have is from England in 1573.

Salome: A derivative of the same root as Solomon, Salome is a curious name to be used in any sort of venerative contexts, given that the best-known historical Salome was the cause of the death of John the Baptist. The name was never common, but we do have a single example in Dutch from 1592.

Names of other origin

The remainder of our NT feminine names are all of non-Hebrew origin.

Dorcas: Of Greek origin, Dorcas was used as a translation of Aramaic Tabitha. Both names were used in England in the second half of the 16th C; Tabitha was also used rarely in Dutch contexts.

Lois: The name of the grandmother of Timothy, the eponymous character of one of the NT books, her name was occasionally used in England after the Reformation. We have, so far, not found any non-English examples.

Lydia (entry available in next edition): Lydia, also spelled Lidia, became common in Dutch contexts in the latter part of the 16th C, but was rare in England before the 17th C.

Magdalene: Magdalene, like Lydia, was originally a locative byname, not a given name, the most famous bearer being Mary Magdalene in the NT. The name was used in German from the 15th C, but otherwise it first reaches predominance in the 16th C, with a huge upswing in popularity in French, Dutch, and English.

Phoebe: The name of a minor character in the book of Romans, Withycombe’s earliest instance of Phoebe in England is from 1566 [2], and our earliest instance in France is from two years later.

Priscilla: Our sole example of an NT name with a Latin origin, Priscilla was used by both the English and the Dutch.

Sapphira: Like Salome above, the use of Sapphira may be surprising, given the negative light in which she is found in the NT. Bardsley highlights her name, along with that of her husband Ananias, as “New Testament names, whose associations are of evil repute” (pp. 72-73), noting that “Ananias had become so closely associated with Puritanism, that not only did Dryden poke fun at the relationship in the ‘Alchemist’, but Ananias Dulman became the cant term for a long-winded zealot preacher” (p. 73). Despite these unpleasant associations, we’ll see this name again when we discuss the New Testament influence on men’s names, in our next posts.


[1] Bardsley, C.W., Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature (London: Chatto & Windus, 1880).

[2] Withycombe, E.G., Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, 3rd ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), s.n. Phoebe.


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