Tag Archives: US baby names

Medieval roots of modern names: The feminine US top 10

Having looked at the top ten boys’ names in the US for 2015 in this post, we now turn to the top 10 girls’ names for the US in 2015, according to the data released earlier this month.

  1. Emma: This classic British name gets its roots from Old German, via the element ermen or irmin, used as a first element in many compound names. Such compound names were often reduced to diminutive form by truncating the second element, result in Irma or Erma, which in turn developed into Emma. The name was used throughout Germanic Europe in the early part of the Middle Ages, but it only remained popular in England, due to the high regard with which Queen Emma, queen consort of England, Denmark, and Norway in the 11th C, was held. The name developed its own hypocoristics, with Em(m)ot(t) and Em(m)et(t) being used. Both of these read as masculine names nowadays, but Latinate forms such as Emota or Emmetta would both work as feminine names in the 21st C.
  2. Olivia: Olivia is an Italian or Latin form of Olive, and Shakespeare is often credited for the use of the name in England. This is not the case. While Oliva may have been a more common Latin form of the name, variants Olivia and Olyvia can be found in England as early as the 13th C.
  3. Sophia: With roots going back to the ancient Greek word for wisdom, σοφία, and the name of some early Christian martyrs, it’s no surprise that Sophia has been used widely for a very long time. It was never especially popular in the Middle Ages, but examples can be found from Brabant and France to Latvia and the Ukraine. Interestingly, we have not yet found any examples of the name in England; Withycombe s.n. Sophia notes that the name came into use there in the 17th C, along with other Greek virtue terms such as ἀλήθεια ‘truth’ and χάρις ‘love, charity’.
  4. Ava: This extremely popular modern name has a curious history. It is likely from Old German avi, of uncertain origin and meaning, and is only rarely evidenced medievally. Instead, its diminutive form Avelina (and variants) takes the stage as a relatively common name in France and England. We recently did an in-depth search for examples of Ava at the request of a reader, and were surprised at how few instances we found!
  5. Isabella: This Latin form of Isabel itself derives from Hebrew Elizabeth, via the Old Provençal form Elisabel, which was later interpreted as el Isabel ‘the Isabel’. The name first shows up in the 12th C, and while in some parts of Europe its connection to Elizabeth was quickly lost, in England even in the 16th C you can find examples of the same woman recorded in one context as Isabel and another as Elizabeth, and spellings such as Elizabella, Elsabel, etc., show the difficulty in confidently ascribing these forms to one name or the other.
  6. Mia: It’s not often one can point to a precise origin for the use of a name in the US, but Mia may be one such name. The first best-known example of the name is Mia Farrow, whose birthname was Maria. So far, we have found no evidence for this contracted form before 1600.
  7. Abigail: Abigail was essentially unused before the middle of the 16th C, and became quite popular, in certain circles, afterwards. It isn’t uncommon to find the name spelled with two ls during that period, which would make a lovely, slightly unusual variant spelling nowadays.
  8. Charlotte: There’s no doubt that the popularity of this name was influenced by the birth of a new princess, but interestingly, Charlotte itself is a relative late-comer into the pool of English names, first introduced in 1626 (see Withycombe s.n. Charlotte). It is a diminutive form of Carla, the feminine of Carl (cf. Charles), and can be found before 1600 in both France and Italian (though there this diminutive took the form Carlotta). It is curious, given how popular Charles was throughout the Middle Ages, how unpopular the feminine form appears to be.
  9. Harper: This is our first non-given-name (in origin, at least) on the list. Like Mason in the boys’ top 10, this surname was originally an occupational byname, deriving from Old English hearpere ‘harper’. The same byname can be found in England spelled Harp(o)ur, from Anglo-French harpour or Old French harpeor.

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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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