We are pleased to announce the publication of a new paper by a member of our team. Our editor-in-chief Dr. Sara L. Uckelman’s paper “Names Shakespeare Didn’t Invent: Imogen, Olivia, and Viola Revisited” is now available online from Names. Here’s the abstract:
Just as Shakespeare’s plays left their indelible stamp on the English language, so too did his names influence the naming pool in England at the beginning of the 17th century and beyond, and certain popular modern names are often described as inventions of Shakespeare. In this article, we revisit three names which are often listed as coinages of Shakespeare’s and show that this received wisdom, though oft-repeated, is in fact incorrect. The three names are Imogen, the heroine of Cymbeline; and Olivia and Viola, the heroines of Twelfth Night. All three of these names pre-date Shakespeare’s use. Further, we show in two of the three cases that it is plausible that Shakespeare was familiar with this earlier usage. We conclude by briefly discussing why these names are commonly mistakenly attributed to Shakespeare’s imagination, and the weaker, but not mistaken, claims which may underlie these attributions.
This paper shows the benefit of a large-scale cross-cultural data like the Dictionary collects and publishes; it is easy to be mislead by the data when you focus only on a single culture, resulting in the drawing of incorrect conclusions. When the net is cast wider, then we can obtain a more accurate picture about which names Shakespeare actually coined, which he merely introduced into England, and which were already in use in England before him, but were, perhaps, popularised by his use of them.
We’re combining blue and purple into one post because of the difficulty there can be in knowing just how to classify one interim term that gave rise to a number of different names: violet!
Violet itself is of Old French origin, and thus its primary use is in places with connections to France. In the 16th C, it was quite popular in Scotland. The root word is Latin viola, itself used as a name. In connection with a research project on the roots of Shakespearean names, the editorial team specifically investigated this name before the publication of the current edition, finding out that it was unexpectedly popular in Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine.
It wasn’t only the Latin word for the flower that was used in names; the Greek compound of ιολη ‘violet’ and ανθος ‘flower’ was used, recognizable in the modern spellings Yolanda and Violante. These tended to be used more in western Europe than the Latinate counterpart mentioned above.
The next two names that fall under this post’s purview also have a connection with flowers. Greek ὑάκινθος was the name of both a flower and a precious gem of blue color, probably sapphire, and gave rise to both masculine and feminine names. Hyacinth was used intermittently in France, Italy, and Portugal; there was also a Polish saint by the name so while we haven’t found any Polish examples yet, this is due more likely to the fact that we have yet to start in on Polish names in any systematic fashion (the current edition has only 107 citations from Poland) than anything else. Hyacinthe was somewhat rarer; we have, to date, a single example from early Italy.
Finally, we have one surprise: Indigo. The word, referring to a blue dye imported from India, only entered the English language in the 16th C, so its occurrence as a given name at the very end of that century, in England, is extremely unusual. It’s also a name well worth considering for modern revival — unusual, but recognizable, and evocative of lovely things.