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Names through History
From the dawn of humanity, from the time we began to speak, there were names. The custom of naming offspring is one every society shares. The mystique and importance of our names has grown over many thousands of years. Nomenclature (the system of naming) is a fascinating study because it clearly reflects the mores, customs, and history of a society. Because we put our names on public documents and record the births and deaths of our loved ones, we have access to some of the history of nomenclature.
Our names have changed as we as a culture have changed. Throughout Europe, traditions of naming changed after an invasion to reflect the customs of the new ruling influence. The dark specter of the medieval church dictated generations of baby names (these names were often ugly, ridiculous, and oozing piety).
Conformity was the order of the day and any variation from it put one at risk. In those dark times, choosing an unusual name could lead to death by burning,
hanging, or being crushed under a great weight of stones.
As the influence of the church waned,
other sources became the inspiration for a new generations of names. The poets waxed romantic and our babies had new names. A queen was popular and much loved by her subjects, and her name echoed on in future generations.
In the modern era, actors play beloved characters on television or in the movies and new names become popular. We are now in a time that allows great freedom.
We are free to choose names for our children and even for ourselves that are not dictated to us by conquest, an oppressive ruler,
the church, or any social convention.
We are in an age of seeking understanding and perspective that we achieve, in part,
by looking to the past. We look to history.
We look beyond the fearful fundamentalists of today, beyond the misogynistic murderers of the Middle Ages, and back to an era before traditional religions shaped our cultures.
We are looking back to a time perhaps when wisdom was valued, nature was revered, and the feminine was venerated; a time before humans believed they held
“dominion” over nature, before the quest for youth and beauty held sway over the culture.
The ancient rites and rituals may have been lost in the mists of antiquity, but we can look back at what we do know and bring some things from that era forward. The ancient names we chose for ourselves, before we were named after martyred saints, are links to the past.
When our primitive ancestors held a new baby wrapped warmly in the skins of animals and gave the child a name, they probably used methods of naming that would seem odd to us today. Of course, we don’t know what the ancients named themselves;
their languages have faded from memory many thousands of years ago. The oldest names we know tell us that tribes might choose names for children based on birth order, a desired trait, deities held sacred by the tribe, totem animals, rocks, plants, or weapons. Each little village would build up stocks of name words, and as villages intermingled through trade or war, these names would be spread to new villages and the name pools expanded. Indo-European cultures combined two elements from their name stocks without caring if the name had a coherent meaning. (For example,
Wigfrith means “war-peace.”)
English names spring from an intermingling of several different cultures and languages brought to Britain by her various conquerors. Celtic tribes from Europe invaded
Britain circa 1000 B.C.E (before common era).
The mighty Roman legions of Julius Caesar first invaded Britain in 55 B.C.E. In 410 C.E. (of the common era), a group of Angles and
Saxons began looting along her shores; 300
years later, Anglo-Saxon was the tongue of
“Angle-land.” Viking sea raiders also sought the tempting treasures Britain held and ravaged her shores about 750 c.e.. In 1017 c.e.,
the Danish King Canute sat upon the English throne. The Norman-French invaders came in 1066, and for 200 years tried to impose the French language upon the peoples of Britain, without much success. Geoffrey
Chaucer’s Canterbury Taleswas published in 1400 and is evidence of a lingering French influence. By the time of Shakespeare’s death (1616), Britain was undergoing a surge of English nationalism and rejected French influence. Societal, political, and religious pressures also contributed to the creation of the English language we use today. This rich history is reflected in the names our ancestors chose for their offspring and in the names we bear today.
Each culture had its own ways of choosing names for its children. Some of the ancient Germanic names include words that mean war, strife, battle, protection,
rule, counsel, raven, wolf, and bearall of these were important to the prehistoric
Germanic tribes. The literary classic Nibelungenlied
(a Germanic epic written in 1203
c.e. ) is full of wonderful Germanic “warrior”
names. Many of the methods of namemaking that our ancestors used are still used today by native tribes in Africa.
1000 b.c.e. The Celtic Influence
The Celts (pronounced “kelts”), a group of warrior tribes spread across Europe, emerged as one of the continent’s most powerful people in the first millennium b.c.e. They invaded England in 1000 b.c.e. and settled there, lending the Celtic tongue to the inhabitants of England. The Celtic language has two modern variants: Q-Celtic or Goedelic
(Gaelic) languages, including Erse, Scottish,
and Irish; and P-Celtic or Brythonic languages,
including Manx, Breton, Cornish,
and Welsh. The main difference between the two is that the “c” or “q” sounds in Q-Celtic are replaced with “b” or “p” sounds in PCeltic.
For example, the prefix “Mac” found in many Scottish names is the Q-Celtic word for “son.” “Mac Donald” means “son of Donald.”
In Welsh (P-Celtic), the word becomes
“map” or “mab.” The influence of the Celts is strongly felt in nomenclature. A number of names in current usage are from Irish or Scottish
Gaelic, or Welsh.
55 b.c.e.: The Roman Influence
The Roman invasion of Britain in 55 b.c.e.
had a profound effect upon life in the British
Isles, from changes in nomenclature to adaptations in the ways in which the people worshiped their gods. The Romans brought with them the fashion of creating images of their deities, which the Celts hadn’t developed
(this is why there are so few images of
Celtic deities). The influence of the Roman
Empire had a binding and homogenizing effect on most of the civilized world, and language pools melded into one general vocabulary as Roman rule expanded across
Europe and Britain. After the downfall of
Rome, the medieval church took over as a unifying power and became a dominant force in molding nomenclature for the next
In Rome, the system of names was very complicated, involving an individual having several names that indicated paternity and tribal association, as well as the name of the individual. Slaves in the Roman Empire had no individual names and were given the names of their masters, followed by the suffix
por (meaning “boy”). Later in history,
Roman slaves were given sexless Greek names followed by the name of their owners as a token of dishonor.
400 c.e.: Anglo-Saxon or Old English
“Anglo-Saxon,” in a general sense, describes the Teutonic tribes (Angles and Saxons) who invaded England around 400500 c.e.. Anglo-
Saxon or Old English also describes the language of those peoples. By 700 c.e., the language spoken in “Angle-land” was Anglo-
Saxon. The epic poem Beowulf was probably written in 700 c.e. and is considered a classic in Anglo-Saxon literature. The influence of the Germanic (Teutonic) languages emerged in Old English nomenclature. In Old English it was common to use name words consisting of two parts, as in Aelfraed (aelf, “elf ” and
raed, “counsel”). This system of naming can be traced back as far as 3000 b.c.e. to the prehistoric
Indo-Europeans. Most Old English names did not survive past the thirteenth century and were forgotten, thanks to the strong arm of the church. The only names that were allowed to emerge out of the distant antiquity of Paganism were those attached to Christians.
Elements Found in
Old English Names
Beorn/Born: bear; warrior.
Ead/Ed: happiness, prosperity.
Helm: helmet, protection.
Herd/Heard/Hurd: strong, hard.
Her/Here: army, soldier.
Raed/Rede/Red: counsel, wisdom.
Ric/Rick: rich; rule.
Weald/Wald: power; rule.
Weard/Ward: guard, protection.
Old English or
Regenbeald (later Reynebaud,
In Old English, although they did not use last names, family ties were created by choosing names that all began with the same letter, or all used the same prefix or suffix. Thus daughters of the same family might be called Mildthryth, Mildburh, and
750 c.e.: The Viking Invasion
Powerful Viking sea raiders from Denmark,
Sweden, and Norway ravaged the coastal settlements of Scotland and England around
750 c.e. The raids often involved the abduction of local women, who then became the property of the victors. The Danes finally conquered England in 1017 c.e., when King
Canute of Denmark and Norway ruled England and made serfs of the Anglo-Saxons.
The Scandanavians who settled in Britain made their mark on the culture and their history speaks to us through the fossils of current names. Names like Osborne, Booth,
Svegn, Thorkill, Woolf, Seagram, and Osmond may come from ancient Viking raider ancestors.
Current Names and Their
Ancient Viking Roots
Osborne (Asbiorn, God-Bear)
Booth (Bothe, herdsman)
Secker (Sekkr, sackmaker)
Woolf (Uhlfr, wolf-cunning)
Seagram (Saegrmr, sea-guardian)
Knowles (Knol, turnip-head)
Knott (Knutr, square-body)
Osmond (Asmindr, protector)
1066 c.e.: The Norman Invasion
William the Conqueror and his army of
Norman warriors were of Scandanavian descent, which is to say they were of Indo-
European origin. The Normans came to
England after having conquered parts of
France. Although the Normans and Anglo-
Saxons both originally used a dithemic system
(a stock of name words), Norman customs changed slightly after their invasion of France. In France, the language was of Latin descent and people did not use the dithemic system. When the Normans stormed
England they brought a very limited stock of name words with them, fewer name words than there had been for 400 years previously. This accounts for the overuse of a few men’s names, such as Richard and
Robert. Using the few names they had, they dramatically altered the face of English nomenclature. The Normans brought with them biblical names, saint’s names, and Old
German names. Almost all the Old English names disappeared within three generations.
By 1313, a list of 800 jurors in the Eyre of Kent showed only five Old English names; the rest were Norman.
The Normans instituted the first survey of England. Twenty-one years after their arrival in Britain, an army of clerks armed with quills and thin sheets of vellum invaded every home and interviewed the lord of every manorhouse. Production of crops,
numbers of workers, sizes of homes, and heads of livestock were noted. From this information the Norman rulers were able to assess and charge taxes. The information,
now only barely readable, was assembled into a two-volume set of books known as the Domesday Book (1087). In terms of nomenclature, it is an invaluable resource for historians. The Domesday Book indicated that, a mere twenty-one years after the
Normans came to England (a very short period of time in terms of nomenclature),
Norman names were most prevalent. In fact, virtually every name in the Domesday survey book was Norman.
What eclecticism there was decreased by the middle of the thirteenth century. Unless an ancient name was associated with an early Christian saint, it probably dropped out of use. This was because the early church made repeated attempts to obliterate all memory of Pagan classical history,
the source of such names. Old Germanic and
English names were almost entirely replaced by the names of saints, although some Old English, Norman, Breton, and
Latin names were occasionally used.
The Prologue of The Canterbury Tales
By the 1300s, Old English (Anglish) was replaced by a new form of English that was a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and French words, with a Norman influence. In 1380,
this “new” English became the official language for Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England. Twenty years later, Geoffrey
Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. The
“English” he used in this work is known as
Original Middle English
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour . . .
When April with his sweet showers has
Pierced the drought of March to the root,
And bathed every vein in such moisture
As has power to bring forth the flower . . .
1300 c.e.: The Nicknames Era
By 1300, one-third of the males in England were called either William or John. It was therefore necessary, to avoid confusion, to be called by a nickname. For example, Roger could be known as Hodge, and Robert as
Hob. In fact, the late Middle Ages became the great era of nicknames. A man born
Richard might never be called Richard, but
Dick, Rich, Hitch, Hick, Dickon, or Ricket.
Robin Hood, Will Scarlet, and Little John are good examples of nicknames in the Middle
Ages. The name John today is frequently altered to Johnny or Jack. In the age of nicknames,
however, shortened forms were used much more often and more creatively than they are today.
In the Middle Ages, John was transformed into
Jack, Johnny,Jenning, Jenkin, Jackcock, Jacox, Brown
John, Mickle John, Little John, or Proper
John. In addition to distinguishing a specific person from others of the same name,
nicknames were also often a way to advertise one’s trade or profession, such as
Arthur the Smithy. The advent of the Puritan movement saw the end of the age of nicknames, as the pious Puritans saw diminutive forms of biblical names as irreverent.
The Puritan era was when manners became very important and titles of “Miss,”
“Sir,” and “Ma’am” came into common usage.
Some Nickname Forms in the
Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries
Adecock (cock is a reference to one who is “cocky,” or masculine)
Warinot (later Warren)
At the beginning of the Middle Ages (1050
c.e.), the people of England, Scotland, and
Wales had no surnames. As time went on,
the name pools these cultures drew upon became too limited; as the population grew,
it became confusing because so many people bore the same name. Surnames were once called sir names, because the nobility were the first to adopt this second name. The method by which the gentry chose a surname was usually by association with their property. Thus, Robert, Lord of
Blackstone Castle or Edward, Earl of Thornfield
Hall were titles that the gentry passed down to successive generations. By the year
1250 c.e., these titles were passed on whether the child was residing in the manor or not.
Many of the people in England had adopted a second name by the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, but even by 1465 c.e. the use of last names was not yet universal.
Before hereditary surnames evolved, the first surnames were often patronymic
(named for the father by adding “son” to a father’s name: “Fitz” in Teutonic or “Mac”
[Mc] in Gaelic); some were place names
(indicating residence or origin); others were names of trade or nicknames that described a characteristic of the person. Thus William
Jackson, Robin of Loxley, Alywin the Smythe,
or Bodrick the Forgetful were representative thirteenth-century names.
Many societies clung to the patronymic system, even though naming through the mother’s line is much more accurate,