The hidden heritage and meaning of English names

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To most of us, English names are all pretty much alike. Few people would perceive Ed, Bob, Kevin and Jason as representing four different linguistic origins. In fact, English names are among the most diverse body of names in the world; their rich variety holds a clue to the history of the English language.

"An English name for her new, English life was given to her on her coronation -- 'Emma' is deemed too foreign-sounding for Anglo-Saxon royalty. Officially she is to be known as Aelfgifu, although she is mostly to be referred to as the Lady. It rankles that Aethelred's previous wife was also called Aelfgigu, but Emma has been assured this is purely a coincidence."

Harriet O'Brien, "Queen Emma and the Vikings"

Old English names

The earliest form of the English language was Old English, a group of dialects spoken in England from some time in the mid-5th or 6th century well into the post-Conquest period. A large number of English names survive from this period, both in place-names and in documents. However, very few of them have survived into modern English, and many of them sound very strange to the modern ear.

Old English was one of a group of languages known as the Germanic languages. As in many of the Germanic languages, Old English names were often dithematic. Dithematic names are formed from two different elements, a prefix and a suffix. These elements could be combined in many different ways to create new names. For instance, Ecgfrith comes from roots meaning "blade" and "peace," while Aethelfrith combines the roots for "noble" and "peace."

Families often contained members with linked names. For example, King Alfred the Great ("aelf" + "raed," "elf-counsel") was the son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex ("noble-wolf"). Aethelwulf's other sons included Aethelbald, Aethelbert and Aethelred ("noble-bold," "noble-bright" and "noble-counsel," respectively), all of whom were kings of Wessex before Alfred. Alfred, the youngest, seems to have been an exception to the rule, although he does share a name element with one of his brothers.

Although a wide range of names are possible using the dithematic system, some names tend to recur in certain areas or at certain times. For instance, when Emma, daughter of Duke Richard the Fearless of Normandy, came to England to marry King Aethelred II in 1002, she was given an English name for use on charters and other formal documents. This English name was Aelfgifu ("elf-gift"), which was coincidentally the name of her husband's first wife, Aelfgifu of York. After Aethelred's death, Emma married King Cnut the Great of Denmark. She was forced to compete for his attentions with his mistress (or first wife) Aelfgifu of Northampton.

Few Old English names have survived into modern English. Many of the ones that do incorporate the root "ead," which means wealth. These include Edward ("wealth-protector" or "rich protector"), Edgar ("wealth-spear"), Edith (from Ealdgyth, "wealth-war") and Edmund ("wealth-protector" again). Another Old English female name, Aethelthryth, was adopted as a French name and exists in modern English as the easier-to-pronounce name Audrey.

French influence

The Norman Conquest brought a huge range of new names to Britain. Although the English language endured, absorbing many French influences and eventually emerging as the language called Middle English, French names became more and more popular. To make matters more confusing, French names themselves were derived from multiple sources.

Like Old English names, some French names were of Germanic, dithematic origin. For instance, Robert, a common Norman name, comes from roots meaning "glory-bright." Similarly, William comes from roots meaning literally "will-helm." However, other French names were derived from Biblical sources, reflecting Hebrew, Latin or Greek roots. Names such as John, Peter, Stephen or Nicholas represent the tradition of naming children after Biblical figures. These names were common among the French-speaking aristocracy; after the Conquest, there would not be a king of England with an English-derived name until Edward I in 1272.

The wide variety of modern names sometimes makes it hard for us to understand how common some names were in medieval England. The historian Frances Stonor Saunders lists 26 officers who served under the English mercenary commander John Hawkwood in Italy in the 14th century. Of these 26, 11 are called John, three William, two Nicholas and two Robin.

As the list suggests, many medieval English names have remained in common use into the modern day. Women's names such as Margaret, Eleanor and Elizabeth occur in the letters of the 15th-century Paston family, and the history of the period is full of Catherines, Marys and other names still found in modern English. In many cases, these are names we tend to think of as typically English, even though they do not have their roots in Old English. Some medieval names have not survived -- Fulk, for instance, has vanished, despite once having been fairly common.

Other influences

Increased migration and the spread of literacy exposed an increasing number of people to exotic and unusual names in the post-medieval period. Many common modern names derive from this period. The English-speaking diaspora led to the development of English dialects around the world; these have in turn influenced British English, particularly American English with its powerful media footprint.

Over the centuries, common English names have been adopted from many sources. Irish has contributed names such as Sean and Kevin. Alexander is a Greek name which entered common use in English in the middle ages, but its Scottish equivalent Alistair is also now well-known in England. Multiple variants of the same name often occur in English, such as Charles and Carl, which are French and German or Scandinavian versions of the same root.

Other names come from literary sources. For instance, the female name Jessica first occurs in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." It may be derived from a Hebrew name, but the modern name's popularity definitely derives from Shakespeare. Classical and Biblical names increased in popularity as these texts became more easily available in English; Hannah, as opposed to Ann, became a popular name for girls during the 16th century for this reason. The vogue for classical names was particularly pronounced in 19th-century America, but most of these names failed to catch on; Homers, Milos and Myrons remain rare. Of the classical men's names, only Jason has really survived.

The increasing diversity in naming practices also seems to have inspired an increasing feeling that creativity in child-naming is acceptable. Unlike Hawkwood's commanders, a modern group of English soldiers would be likely to have widely divergent names, reflecting not only the increased diversity of the modern UK but the much wider range of names in common use.

Multiple interpretations

As time passes, a name may go through several interpretations. For instance, the French name Rosamund entered common use in England in the middle ages. The name itself, like many French names, is a Germanic dithematic name: "hros-mund," or "horse-protector." However, the similarity of the Germanic root to the Latin word "rosa," or rose, led to a new interpretation of the name, either as "rosa munda," "pure rose," or as "rosa mundi," "rose of the world."