Archive for the ‘Name Rankings’ Category

Pagan Name of the Month features a name currently in the American or English top 100 which has what I like to call “Pagan umph.”

This month’s choice — Evan — features in both the American and English chart, ranked 36th in America, and 76th in England and Wales.

Superficially, it might seem an odd choice, for today it is generally regarded as the Welsh form of John.

Which it is. Sort of.

It is actually the now standard Anglicized form of Ifan, just one of the Welsh forms of John.

Others include Ieuan and Ioan, made familiar by the Welsh actor, Ioan Gruffudd. These were Anglicized in the early modern period as as Javan, Jevon and Jowan (now considered purely Cornish).

Evan itself evolved from the older form Yevan, from the Welsh Iefan, with Evan itself first appearing in around 1500.

Although its roots were in the Hebrew John, it became regarded, quite rightly, as thoroughly Welsh, and remained one of the few Welsh names to remain in popular and regular use until the Celtic Revival in the nineteenth century.

Hence why Evans is one of the commonest surnames, especially in Wales. It also lies behind Bevan (from ap Evan “son of Evan”), Avens and Heaven.

Another old variant was Even, which is also found as a variant of Euan in Scotland and parts of England. Indeed, it seems to have been the
most common form of EWAN still prevailing in “the Old North” in the early nineteenth century.

There are also (rarer) modern feminine forms: Evana, Evanna, Ifanna and Ifanwy. A well-known bearer being the Irish actress, Evanna Lynch, known for playing Luna Lovegood.

So far, so good. But you might be wondering what it is about Evan that gives it a Pagan edge, apart from a fairly flimsy connection to a fictional witch?

The answer lies in a more unexpected source — Classical Latin.

For Evan also happens to be one of the alternative names of the Roman God Bacchus — identified with the Greek Dionysus.

I bet you weren’t expecting that!

Of course, the Romans didn’t pronounce it the same as we do; they said it “eh-wan,” and it is also written Euan. Other forms include Euhan, Euius and Evius.

It probably arose from the ritual cry used at his festival by worshippers — euoe!  or euhoe! — which even had a special adjective derived from it, which was used of worshippers, particularly Bacchantes: euans, meaning  “shouting ‘Evan.'”

So if you’d like a mainstream name with a nice little Pagan twist, Evan might be just the one for you.

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I’ve been hunting through English surnames a while now, plucking out those which I think could make the cross-over to first name status pretty well.

So far, however, I’ve left out those surnames which are identical to existing words in the English vocabulary, to save for later.

Well, later is now upon us!

A fact often overlooked in the debate about the use of “word names” is the fact that a great many of these names are also surnames.

In many cases, they represent simply the adoption of the word as a surname (back in medieval times).

In others, the resemblance belies a different origin. Sometimes, it is pure coincidence that a surname has come to look the same as a word. On other occasions, the switch was deliberate.

All these “word name” surnames are responsible for the vast majority of the apparent adoption of “word names” as first names prior to the late nineteenth century.

They account for the more curious monikers sometimes encountered in that period, which would have been very strange choices if plucked from the dictionary.

There are literally thousands of them. Some are now already quite established as first names. Others also have great first-name potential.

Here’s my first batch for your perusal, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unlike in my English Surnames series, these include surnames of Welsh, Irish and Scottish origin too.

They can all be found in use as given names (though often as middle names) since at least the nineteenth century…

Abbess Banks Bellringer Bond Brine
Abbey Bar (Barr) Belt Bone Broad
Abbot Barbe Bench Bones Brock
Ace Barber Bencher Bonnet Broke
Acres Bard Bender Boon Brooch
Affray Bare Bent Boot Brook
Agate Bargain Berry Booth Brooker
Air (Ayre) Barge Best Born (Borne) Broom
Alabaster Bark Bethel Borrow Brothers
Alder Barker Betony Boss Brown
Alderman Barley Bets (Betts) Bottle Brownie
Ale Barleycorn Better Bottom Browse
Alley Barn Bevel Bough Bruiser
Almond Barnacle Bible Boulder Brush
Alpine Barns Bicker Bound Buck
Anchor Baron Bigger Bow Bucket
Angel Barrack Bill Bowl Buckle
Anguish Barrel Billet Bowler Bud (Budd)
April Barrow Billows Bowling Budding
Archdeacon Barter Binder Bowman Budge
Archer Base Birch Box Bug (Bugg)
Argent Bash Bird Boxer Buggy
Argentine Basil Bishop Boys Bugle
Aries Bask Black Brace Bulk
Arm Bass Blackbird Bracer Bull
Armor Bastard Blade Bracken Bullard
Arrow Baster Blain Bracket Buller
Artist Bat (Batt) Blanch Brag (Bragg) Bullet (Bullett)
Arum Batch Bland Braid (Brade) Bullfinch
Ash Bate Blane Braider Bullock
Ask (Aske) Bater Blank Brain Bully
Asp Bates Bleary Brake Bunch
Attack Bath Blessed Bramble Bunion (Bunyon)
Auburn Batman Blight Brand Bunker
Augur Baton Blind Brass Bunting
Axel Battle Blink Brassy Burden
Aze Baud Bliss Brawn Burgess
Babble Bay Blithe (Blythe) Bray Burgh
Bachelor Bayard Block Brazier Burgher
Back Beach Blood Breach Burn
Bacon Bead Bloom Bread Burner
Bade Beam Bloomer Bream Burnet
Badger Bean Blossom Breed Burns
Bail Bear Blow Breeder Burr
Bailey Beard Blower Breeze Burrow
Bailiff Beat Blunt Breton Burser
Bain (Baine) Beater Boar Brew Bury
Baker Beaver Boarder Brewer Bush
Balance Beck Boast Briar Bushel
Bald Bee Boater Brick Bustard
Balder Beech Boatman Bride Butcher
Bale Beer Boatswain Bridge Butler
Ball Beet Bode Bridger Butt
Ballad Beetle Body Bridle Butter
Ballaster Beggar Bog (Bogg) Brig (Brigg) Buttery
Balm Belch Bold Bright Buttress
Balsam Belcher Bolder Brighten Buy
Banister Bell Bole Brill Buzzard
Banker Bellow Bolt Brim Bye

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Here are the last of the “p” English surnames of Old English, Old Norse and Anglo-French origin, which have great first name potential but have so far seen little use:

  • Plaistow — from one of the places of the name. Old English: pleg-stōw “place for play or sport.”
  • Planter — from Old French plant “a plant”; used of a gardener
  • Plash — from Plash, Somerset, or Plaish, Shropshire. Old English: plæsc “muddy pool.”
  • Plater — Middle English plate “armor,” used of someone who made armor.
  • Playden — from Playden, Sussex. Old English: pleg “play” + denn “woodland pasture.”
  • Pledger — Middle English plegere “some-one who stands bail in a law-suit.”
  • Plessis — from Pleshey, Essex and Plessey, Northumberland. Old French: plaisseis “enclosure made with interlaced fencing.”
  • Plumley — from one of the places of the name. Old English: plūme “plum-tree” + lēah “wood,” “woodland clearing,” “glade,” “pasture” and “meadow.”
  • Poe — Old Norse and Middle English po “peacock.”
  • Polden — from Polden Hill, Somerset. Celtic place-name Bouelt “cow-pasture” + Old English dūn “hill.”
  • Polder — from one of the places of the name. Old English *polra “marshy-land.”
  • Polton — from one of the places called Poulton. Old English: pōl “pool” + tūn “enclosure,” “farmstead,” “estate,” “manor,” “village.”
  • Pomeroy — from La Pommeraye, Calvados. Old French: pommeraie “apple-orchard.”
  • Ponter — Middle English pont, through French from Latin pons “bridge.” Used of someone who lived by a bridge.
  • Ponton — from one of the Pontons in Lincolnshire. Old English *pamp “hill” + tūn “enclosure,” “farmstead,” “estate,” “manor,” “village.”
  • Popham — from Popham, Hampshire. Possibly Old English *pop(p) “pebble” + hām ‘homestead,’ ‘village,’ ‘estate,’ ‘manor or hamm “enclosure.”
  • Popley — Old English popel “stony” + lēah “wood,” “woodland clearing,” “glade,” “pasture” and “meadow.”
  • Popple — from the lost village of Pophall, Sussex, or Pophills, Warwickshire. Old English *pop(p) “pebble” + hall or hill.
  • Porcher — Old French porcher “swine-herd.”
  • Porteous — Anglo-French: porte-hors, literally “carry-hours”, a porte-hors was a small, “portable” prayer book. The surname arose as a name for someone who wrote them.
  • Portno, Portnoy, Portner — Anglo-French: port-nuit, literally “carry-night.” Perhaps used of a night-watchman, or a night-owl.
  • Possell, Postle — Old French apostle “apostle.” As well as arising as a pageant name, there is some evidence Apostle was used as a first name in the Middle Ages.
  • Pothecary, Potticary — Middle English: apotecarie, ultimately from Latin apothecarius “store-keeper” (specifically of spices and drugs — only later came to mean some-one who prepared drugs, an apothecary).
  • Potter — Old English: potere “a potter.” Intriguingly has never been in the top 1000…
  • Potterell — Old French: poutrel “colt.”
  • Potton — from Potton, Bedfordshire. Old English pott “pot” + tūn “enclosure,” “farmstead,” “estate,” “manor,” “village.”
  • Pougher — Old English: pohha “bag”; used of someone who made bags.
  • Poulter — Old French: poultier “poultry-dealer.”
  • Powell — appeared once in the ranks in 1891. Sometimes from Paul, sometimes from Old English pōl “pool” — and sometimes from the Welsh ap Howel “son of Howel.”
  • Poyle — sometimes from Apulia, Italy; othertimes from Pulley, Shropshire. Old English pōl “pool”  + lēah “wood,” “woodland clearing,” “glade,” “pasture” and “meadow.”
  • Poyner — Old French: poigner “fighter.”
  • Poynter — Middle English: poynte “a tagged lace/cord,” used of someone who made them.
  • Poynton — from Pointon, Lincolnshire and Poynton, Cheshire.  Pointon is from the personal name *Pohha, Poynton from *Pofa + tūn “enclosure,” “farmstead,” “estate,” “manor,” “village.”
  • Poyntz — from the Old French personal name Ponz, from the Latin Pontius (ultimately from pons “bridge.”).
  • Prater — ultimately from Latin praetor, which was used in the Middle Ages to mean “reeve.”
  • Prentice — Old French: aprentis “apprentice.”
  • Prescott — Old English: prēost “priest” + cot “cottage.” Used of someone who worked at the priest’s cottage.
  • Pressney, Prestney — from Prestney’s Farm, Essex. Old English prēost “priest” + haga “enclosure.”
  • Prester — Old French: prestre “priest.”
  • Proust — Middle English: provost “a provost.”
  • Pryer — Old French: priour “a prior.”
  • Pryke — Middle English: prike “point (of a weapon)”, also a type of weapon; probably used of someone who made them.
  • Prynne — Old French: prin “first,” “superior.”
  • Pulham — from one of the places called Pulham. Old English: pōl “pool” + hām ‘homestead,’ ‘village,’ ‘estate,’ ‘manor or hamm “enclosure.”
  • Pullan — Old French: poulan “colt.”
  • Purcifer — a variant of Percival.
  • Purdey — Old French: pour Dieu “for God!” — an “oath” name.
  • Purden — Old French: prudhomme “honest man.”
  • Purefoy — Anglo-French: par fei  “by faith!” — another “oath” name.
  • Purley — From one of the places called Purley or Purleigh. Old English: pūr “snipe” or pirige “pear-tree” + lēah “wood,” “woodland clearing,” “glade,” “pasture” and “meadow.”
  • Pyrah — probably a variant of the surname Perry, from pirige “pear-tree.”

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With the trend for adopting the names of our great-grandparents showing signs of gathering pace, last week I shared my pick of “Granny names.”

Today it’s Grandpa’s turn.

Just as with the girls, some, like Arthur, Frederick, George, Oscar and Stanley have already become mainstream in Britain again while still languishing in America (though I’d be surprised if Arthur doesn’t reveal a pick-up in the 2011 rankings when they come out).

It’s a curious phenomenon that in the last few centuries, fashions in girls’ names have always changed more quickly than boys’, and that there have always been more girls’ names in circulation.

True to form, the rehabilitation of the great-grandpa names isn’t showing quite so much energy. It does seem the case that, with the exception of those names which didn’t sink that far down the popularity charts, such as Henry, Edward and William, people are more ready to take up the granny names than the grandpas.

These then, are the Grandpas which I think really deserve to be dusted off and put back into short-trousers.

Albert — Albert is already rising fast in Britain, ranked 159th last year. With short forms Al, Albie, Bertie and Bert, Albert, with its great meaning “noble-bright,” is a great-grandpa name that is going places, and definitely one to keep an eye on.

Alfred — a true Old English name with character, combining ælf “elf ” with rǣd “counsel” (i.e. “advice”). In the medieval period, it also absorbed another marvellous Old English name, Ælfriþ — æl “all” + friþ “peace.” Its friendly, cheerful pet-form Alfie is currently in the British top 5, but the more formal Alfred lies well outside the top 100, though in America, it’s barely in the top 1000.

Arnold — Arnold was at its most popular in the UK in the first decade or so of the 20th Century, reaching 75th place; in America, it peaked in 89th place in 1916. On both sides of the Atlantic it now lies outside the top 1000, even though it has a short-form not that dissimilar to Alfie with the chirpy Arnie. Time to forget Schwarzenegger; with the meaning “eagle-power” (or “power of an eagle” if you prefer) in Old German, surely Arnold deserves reconsideration?

Cecil — Cecil is usually treated as the English form of the Roman family name Caecilius (deriving ultimately from a nick-name meaning “little blind one”), and thus the male form of Cecilia. However, its use in the English-speaking world is actually more down to the aristocratic English family of Cecil. This may in fact derive ultimatley through the Welsh Seisyllt, which probably derives from another Roman family name, Sextilius (“little sixth one”).

Edgar — Old English Edgar is actually healthier in America at the moment (216th in 2010), than in Britain (759th). However, it is rising in Britain, and falling in America. Time to arrest the fall! With the meaning “spear of wealth/riches” (or “rich/wealth-spear”), it carries connotations of prosperity and protection and, like all the Ed- names, has the simple and charming short-forms Ed and Ned.

Edmund — Edmund has been one of my personal favorites for twenty years. I’ve always had a bit of a thing for the anti-hero, and Edmund’s borne by two of the best — Edmund Pevensie of the Chronicles of Narnia and the immortal Edmund Blackadder. Another Old English name, it has the fabulous meaning of “rich-protection.” Only 42 baby boys were called Edmund in England and Wales, and 93 in America.

Eugene — Eugene was at its most popular in America in the early twentieth century, though it remained in the top 100 until the 1950s. In Britain, however, it has always been inexplicably rarer. Its longevity in the first half of the twentieth century may preclude its general revival just yet, but if you want your son to have the name everyone’s talking about for their babies when he’s in his twenties or thirties, give Eugene a thought. It has the great, auspicious meaning of “well-born” too.

Harold — Old English names dominate the Grandpa names, and like so many of the others, Harold drips with clunky old-fashioned charm.  If it’s strong meaning you want, Harold has it; it can be interpreted as “army-power,” or “power of an army” or “power of the army.” The name of the last Saxon king of England, Harold also shortens to trendy Harry and attractive Hal. In decline since its heyday during the First World War, it was up on the year before in 2010, though in 745th place, it still has a long way to go.

Herbert — Herbert has Old English and Old German roots, coming from cognate names meaning “bright army.” It has some great short-form options; Herbie and Bertie, which ooze nobbly-knee charm, Herb, which has quite a hippie vibe, and no-nonsense Bert.

Horace — I took rather a shine to Horace many moons ago when I contemplated what a great nick-name Azzo would make for it. These days, I probably lean more towards the more romantic Horatio, but I still have a soft-spot for Horace. As the name of one of Rome’s greatest poets, Horace has gravitas in abundance. Another great short-form is, of course, Ace.

Leonard — With the current American preference for giving babies “long-forms” of the names really intended for use, Leonard (as the “long-form” of Leo) did see a rise in 2010. The name actually has nothing really to do with lions at all, translating from the Old German as “people-hard.” In the past, it was more often shortened to Len and Lenny.

Lionel — a name of medieval romance, adopted for the name of a younger son of a medieval English king, Lionel was one of the names re-embraced by the Victorians, and is pretty much what it looks like — a diminutive of Lion, essentially meaning “little lion.” It remains a great rarity in the UK; only ten little boys were called Lionel in 2010, but it did re-enter the US top 1000. I think it’s got a lot of potential, and now’s the time to start re-considering it. Put it this way, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if William and Kate used it for a younger son in years to come…

Reginald — Unsurprisingly, in Britain, the cute Reggie, on the rise, is much more popular than its formal long-form Reginald, though it, too, is rising. Reginald was actually at its most popular in America in the 1960s, though it never made the top 100, though in Britain it was 20th in 1904. Reginald is the same name as the rarer Reynold, meaing “might-power.” Another traditional short-form is Rex

Roland — An Old German name meaning “fame-land,” its literary Italian form Orlando is currently more popular, but Roland, most popular in Britain in the 1890s, is worthy of reconsideration. Although Rolly is often the default short-form, there are other options, such as Ro, Rollo, and Lan — you could even use Lance, whose roots really do lie with Roland and other Germanic names containing the element landa “land.”

Sidney — the charms of Sidney, with its solid short-form Sid, has already started to recapture the hearts of British parents. Like Cecil, it was one of the surnames which Victorians fell in love with. It probably comes from a place name meaning “broad island,” but the aristocratic Sidney family traditionally derived it from Saint-Denis in France.

Wilfred — Yet another Old English name, this time meaning “will/determination-peace.” Wilfrid is a variant spelling and in the past it was invariably shortened to Wilf, but it also lends itself well to Will, Bill, Billy, Freddie and Fred. Another which is already rising steadily in Britain.

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There’s a tale behind today’s post.

I began writing it just after finishing last week’s Pick of the Week Snowdrop. As I mulled over a suitable choice for the middle of January, Winter sprang immediately to mind.

Then I asked Small Child for a suggestion.

Without any prompting, she said Winter.

Too much of a coincidence, I thought, to ignore!

And so today’s seasonal Pick of the Week is the evocative Winter.

I love Winter — the season and the name, and January is undoubtedly its heart. Although the days are starting to lengthen, the cold has built up, and it is usually the coldest month of the year. The hours of daylight are brief; it is often snowy, or plagued by chill winds, rain, and hail. Still, windless days invariably bring fog and mist.

The word “winter” has a long history. First recorded in English in the ninth century, its roots can be traced all the way back to the same Proto-Indo-European root from which words like “wet,” “water” and “otter” also evolved.

Father Winter or Old Man Winter are often seen as winter’s personification, but are sometimes identified with both Father Christmas and Odin.

In medieval times wall paintings were common and allegorical themes, such as those showing the seasons, were popular. Winter, it seems, was always depicted with a miserable looking face and thus it became a nickname for someone with a gloomy expression — the  source, indeed, of the surname. Wynter and de Winter are variants of it.

It is found as a given name as early as the seventeenth century — with some examples possibly dating from the sixteenth, but these represent an adoption of the surname rather than the noun.

This was still the principal source of it as a given name in the nineteenth century, when it mostly featured as a middle name for both boys and girls.

However, particularly among children born in Winter, it is possible some were given the name by this period to commemmorate the season of their birth, although one Winter Day, born in 1845, was registered in the summer months! Winter Flower, however, was a baby of the last quarter, a year earlier in 1844.

At the present time, Winter seems to be seeing most of its limited use as a girl’s name, with 217 little girls receiving the name in America in 2010, in constrast with just 12 little boys. It actually managed to make the US top 1000 in 1978 and 1979, when it reached the dizzying heights of 705th place.

The same story is true in Britain; in 2010, ten girls were called Winter. It only registered as a boy’s name in 2006, when it was given to just three boys. But I would say it is still unusual enough to work well for either sex, and I’d certainly consider it for a boy as well as a girl.

And, nota bene, it ends in that very contemporary ending, for boys and girls, er!

Winter in other languages offers some interesting name options too:

  • Aeneva — Cheyenne (Native American)
  • Chimon — Greek
  • Cole — Chinook (Native American)
  • Entena — Sumerian
  • Evel, Ovol — Mongolian
  • Fuyu — Japanese; occurs in girls’ names such as Fuyumi “beautiful winter,” and Fuyuko “winter child”
  • Gaeaf — Welsh
  • Geurey — Manx
  • Gwav — Cornish
  • Hiems — Latin
  • Hima — Sanskrit
  • Hiver — French
  • Hivern — Catalan
  • Hustola — Chickasaw (Native American)
  • Iarna, Ierna — Moldavian, Romanian
  • Iema — Lithuanian
  • Inverno — Italian, Galician
  • Ivern — Languedoc, Occitan
  • Jara — Hindi
  • Keremte — Amharic (Ethiopia)
  • Kesik — Micmac (Native American)
  • Lowan — Lenape (Native American)
  • Mariga  — Tswana (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa)
  • Negu — Basque
  • Peben — Abenaki (Native American)
  • Raudra — Sanskrit
  • Saradi — Hindi
  • Takurua — Winter (and Sirius)
  • Talvi —  Finnish
  • Tél — Hungarian
  • Vandi – Kashmiri
  • Vetur — Faroese, Icelandic
  • Zaya  — Avestan (Old Persian)
  • Ziema — Latvian
  • Zima — Bulgarian, Croatian, Russian, etc
  • Zimni — Czech.

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There are distint signs now that the pace is gathering in the rehabilitation of names long consigned to granny (or rather great-granny status, as most grannies nowadays are called things like Carol and Susan, and true “granny names” are at least a generation further back).

The trend’s roots actually go back to the seventies and eighties, when the first batch of “Victorian” names started to come back into use. Principal among them have been Emily, Emma, Isabella and Olivia, on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Britain, too, this was the era when names which are only now really capturing the hearts of Americans, such as Alice, Amelia, Beatrice/Beatrix, Charlotte, Matilda and Eleanor (with its pet-form Ellie actually more popular than Eleanor herself), also returned to bask in the sun of popularity.

These could be classed the great-great-granny names; the names borne by the women who went on to name their daughters Lily and Grace, Florence and Evelyn.

This generation began to make a come-back in the nineties.

Some like Lily and Grace are already now thoroughly acclimatized. Some, like Florence, Daisy, Poppy and Ruby, are already considered mainstream in the UK, and are so talked about in the US, it can only be a matter of not very much time before they’re top 100 there too. Others, like Edith, Olive and Maud, are regaining attention.

But there’s a whole Devon cream tea shop’s worth of other delicious and tempting options, and these are the ones I think deserve to be brought back down from the attic.

AgathaI deliberated quite some time about whether to include Agatha, as she’s never actually been very common at all. However, perhaps largely down to Aunt Agatha in the Jeeves stories, she has acquired a distinctly granny edge, and there certainly were more Agathas around in 1910 than 2010! She’s a name I’ll feature on her own some time, as, personally, I love her, and there’s so much to say about her, but I just couldn’t neglect her here, because of my life-long love of all things Agatha Christie…

Agnes — a staple not just of the Victorians and the early twentieth century, Agnes was one of the most popular girls’ names of the medieval and early modern period too. She was under a cloud in the eighteenth century, and again in the twentieth. She is so rich in history, mythology and allusions that she has a post of her own, scheduled for St Agnes’ Eve. But it would be a travesty to not give her a mention here, especially as celeb baby Agnes Lark might well have been the catalyst she needed to spark interest again.

Annie — actually truly belongs  to the great-great granny era, being most in decline since 1881 (when she was ranked 8th). The musical and film arrested her decline in the late seventies and early eighties, but unlike her siblings, she then went back into decline. Her fate may have changed, but at present she still seems to be dithering in the low 300s. Although treated as a pet-form of Ann/Anne, there’s no reason not to consider her a name in her own right, as she’s been used as such so long, and is actually a bit closer to the original Hebrew Hannah, sharing two syllables, rather than just the one.

Blanche — never all that common; like Annie, it hovered in the fifties in the late nineteenth century. Short, elegant, with a long and distinguished history back to medieval times, Blanche makes a worthy alternative to those one-syllable names which are now growing tired, like Claire, Brooke, and Paige.

Doris — in America, one of the darlings of the twenties. This pretty Greek name is definitely ready for revival.

Elsie — already back on the radar and rising, sweet Elsie — usually considered a Scottish short-form of Elizabeth — is also an English surname and essentially the modern form of the Old English Ælfsige “elf-victory.” It’s a must for revival in the UK, slipping comfortably into that established group of friends, Sophie, Evie, Maisie, Ellie, Millie, Katie, Gracie, and Rosie, etc…

Ethel — Ethel’s take up in Victorian times was as a short-form of the numerous girls’ names which featured it as a first element, particularly Etheldred/Etheldreda and Ethelinda. But it is essentially the modern English form of the Old English æthel “noble,” and its German cognate Athalia was used as a name in its own right in medieval times, becoming the English Adela and French Adele. As the name of Lily Allen’s new baby, there are indications are that people are starting to see Ethel — for so long almost the quintessential great-granny name — in a new light. After all, it does combine those softest and most romantic sounds: eth and el…

Freda — Use in the last couple of centuries originated, like Ethel, as a short form of longer names, particularly Winifred and Alfreda. However, also like Ethel, it stands up as a name in its own right, with frithu  meaning “peace” in Old English. Its Norse cognate is found as a name in medieval times: Friða. It survived in Scandinavia as Frida. The Germanic Frieda has also long been used as a variant. Freda is also found in the name of a lwa (divinity) of Haitian Voodoo —   Erzulie Fréda — though in her case, Fréda is probably West African in origin.

GertrudeMy grandmother had the unusual name of Gayther — but was almost universally known as Gertie, the usual nick-name of Gertrude. For a time it was also treated as the archetypal name of a student of my alma mater, Girton College, Cambridge (the shared initial “ger” sound, no doubt). It was also borne by another of my historic heroines, the archaeologist Gertrude Bell. With the strong meaning of “spear-strength,” Gertrude was hugely popular for a time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and has a distinctly “no-nonsense” air about her. But she does shorten to the gentle Trudy, tom-boyish Gerry and contemporary Tru, as well as the as well that ever-cheerful Gertie…

Gladys — up there with Ethel, Gladys (Gwladys in the original Welsh) is another name that I think only needs a nudge for people to start to think, “why not?” Either the Welsh form of Claudia, or an elaboration of gwlad “country.” After all, there are a number of names ending in, or prominently featuring the “is” sound, such as Alexis, Alice, Allison, Genesis, Melissa, Marissa, Iris, Isis, Paris, Carys, and Cerys, etc. Nor is Gladys actually all that far away from Madison and Addison when you think about it…

Ida — Ida is another that was at her most popular in the late nineteenth century and is long overdue reconsideration; she’s already making steady progress in the UK, and since the very similar Ada is clearly on the up in the US, why not Ida too? Ida was found in Britain in medieval times, though in the Victorian period it was most associated with the nymph of the mountain which shared her name, who was said to have raised the infant Zeus. There’s a whole lot more to Ida, and I intend to feature her as a pick of the week, but she certainly deserves a mention here.

Irene — As the usual English form of the Greek Eirene “peace”, Irene is mostly pronounced with two-syllables, but three is not unknown. With two fresh dramatisations of the Sherlock Holmes takes around at the moment — the big screen Robert Downey, Jr version and the sparkling and clever British television one staring Benedict Cumberbatch — the character of Irene Adler will no doubt be working her magic on how people perceive Irene.

Mabel — The bells should be ringing loudly for Mabel. Roll it around the tongue — “May bell”. How pretty is that? Already rediscovered in certain British circles (ranking 386 in 2010), she vanished in America from the top 1000 in 1960 and has yet to resurface. Mabel originated in the Middle Ages as a shorter form of Amabel.

Mildred — I’ve always had a soft spot of the charming Mildred, an Old English gem meaning “mild/gentle counsel.” Featured as a Witch of the Week here.

Nellie — traditional pet-form of Eleanor, but also used of Helen and Ellen. For a long time Nellie fell under the cloud about the popular song, but it is breaking away now and with that popular “-ie” ending, and those letter “l”s, Nellie has a lot of personality.

Olga — one of my first ever name loves. One of the Russian names that came into fashion in the late nineteenth century, Olga is not actually Russian in origin at all; it is the Russian form of Scandinavian Helga “holy.” Olga was never particularly common, peaking in the US in 1916 in 130th spot.

Opal — a nineteenth century adoption of the name of the precious stone, which derives ultimately from the Sanskrit upala “stone.”  It peaked in the US in 81st place in 1911, and dwindled into obscurity by 1900. Believed by the ancients to be the tears of joy wept by Zeus following his victory over the Titans, in more recent centuries black opals in particular have gained an association with witches.

Pearl — at first used as a nickname — like Daisy — for girls called Margaret, Pearl was in independent use by the mid nineteenth century. It actually peaked by 1890, but remained in the top 100 until 1927. It is just starting to show signs of renewed interest, but there’s still a long way to go.

Phyllis — another pretty “-is” name which has been too long neglected now. It derives from Greek phullon “leaf” (with phullis itself meaning “salad.”).

Vera — Vera is another name of Russian origin, meaning “faith,” though it is identical to the Latin vera, the feminine form of verus “true,” which is the source of the vera of the wonderful Aloe vera. Another of my personal heroines is the British writer and pacificst Vera Brittain. Vera was never particularly common in the US, but has recently started to show signs that its fortunes are changing.

Next week, I’ll take a look at the Grandpas…

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P is particularly rich hunting ground for surnames of Old English, Old Norse  and Anglo-French origin which haven’t seen much use as first names.

Here is Part 2 (Part 1 can be found here) — and there’s still more to come!

  • Peckham — Beckham is on the rise, why not Peckham… alright, in the UK, it is probably terminally associated with Only Fools And Horses, but there must be other Peckhams around the world! The surname Peckham comes from the Peckham in London. Old English: *pēac “peak” + hām “homestead,” “village,” “estate,” “manor.”
  • Pedley, Pedlow — Anglo-French pie de leu “wolf-foot.”
  • Pedmer — from Pedmore, West Midlands. Old English personal name Pybba + mōr “moorland,” “marsh,” “barren upland.”
  • Pelerin — a form of the surname Pilgrim, deriving ultimately from the same source as Peregrine.
  • Pelham — from Pelham in Hertfordshire. Old English personal name *Peola + hām “homestead,” “village,” “estate,” “manor.”An aristocratic surname, borne by two prime ministers and associated with the Dukes of Newcastle.
  • Pell — A medieval pet-form of Peter.
  • Peller — Old English pæll, the name of a type of expensive purple cloth; Middle English pallere referred to a maker or seller of it.
  • Pellew — Anglo-French: pel de leu “wolf-skin.”
  • Penderel, Pendrell — French pendre “to hang” + oreille “ear.”
  • Penley — from Penleigh, Wiltshire. Old English: penn “fold,” “enclosure” + lēah “wood,” “woodland clearing,” “glade,” “pasture” and “meadow.”
  • Penn — from Old English penn “fold,” “enclosure” + lēah “wood,” or penn “hill” (from the Celtic pen “head”).
  • Pennell — partly a variant of Parnell, partly from Penhill, Devon.
  • Penner — from Middle English pennen “to impound,” the name of a manorial official who rounded up stray animals.
  • Pentlow — from Pentlow, Essex. English personal name *Penta + hlāw.
  • Penton — from Penton Mewsey, Hampshire. Old English pening “penny” + tūn “enclosure,” “farmstead,” “estate,” “manor,” “village.”
  • Pepys — a form of the Old French personal name Pepin, popular in medieval times in honor of the Frankish king. It derived from the root bib- meaning “to tremble.” Samuel Pepys was a well-known seventeenth century English diarist.
  • Perrers — from Perriers, near Rouen, which derives from Old French perrier “quarryman.”
  • Perrin — A medieval pet-form of Peter, from the medieval variant Perre. There was also a feminine form, Perina.
  • Pesson — Old French: poisson “fish.”
  • Pessoner — Old French: poissonier “fisherman.”
  • Petcher — Old French: pescheor “fisherman.”
  • Pethard — Old French: peter “to break wind” + derogatory suffix -hard (well, I certainly know a number of men whom this name would suit to a tee!).
  • Petley — from Petley Wood, Sussex. Old English personal name *Peota (a short form of names beginning with peoht “Pict”) + lēah “wood,” “woodland clearing,” “glade,” “pasture” and “meadow.”
  • Peto, Peyto — from the region of Poitou, France. It takes its name from the city of Poitiers. This dates to Roman times, when the city was called Pictavium, after the local Pictones tribe. The name derives from the same source as the Picts, namely the Latin pictus  “painted.”
  • Petrie — A medieval pet-form of Peter or Patrick.
  • Petten, Petton — from one of the places called Petton. Old English personal name *Peatta + tūn “enclosure,” “farmstead,” “estate,” “manor,” “village.”
  • Pettifer — Old French pied de fer “iron-foot.”
  • Peverell, Peveril —  from Peverel an Old French personal name deriving ultimately from Latin Piperellus “little peppercorn” (a rather usable feminine form of this would be Piperella). Peveril of the Peak is a novel by Walter Scott, with Peveril referring to the Peveril family (namely, Geoffrey and Julian).
  • Phare — a variant of Fare, from Old English fær “road,” and “track.”
  • Pharo — a variant of Farrar.
  • Philby — from Filby, Norfolk. Old English personal name *Fili + ‘farmstead’, ‘village’ and ‘settlement’. In the UK probably too tainted by the Soviet spy “Kim” Philby (1912-88), but probably inocuous enough elsewhere.
  • Phythian — from a medieval form of Vivian.
  • Picton — from Picton, Yorkshire. Old English personal name *Pica (see Pixton) + tūn “enclosure,” “farmstead,” “estate,” “manor,” “village.”
  • Pilton —  from one of the places of the name. Old English pyll “stream” or personal name *Pileca + tūn “enclosure,” “farmstead,” “estate,” “manor,” “village.”
  • Pim, Pimm, Pym, Pymm — from the Old English male name Pymma or medieval woman’s name Pimme, a pet-form of Euphemia.
  • Pimley — from Pimley, Shropshire. Probably Celtic pimp “five” + lēah “wood,” “woodland clearing,” “glade,” “pasture” and “meadow.”
  • Pinder — a variant of PENNER.
  • Pinkney — from Picquigny, France. Did actually make the top 1000 a few times as a boy’s name in the late nineteenth century, but sank into obscurity in 1900… the town’s name was recorded in 942 as Pinquigniacum, and probably has Gaulish roots.
  • Pinner — from Pinner, London. Old English pinn “point/peg(-shaped)” + ōra “river-bank.”
  • Pipperell — variant of PEVERELL.
  • Pitney — from Pitney, Somerset. Old English personal name *Peota (see Petley) + ēg “river.”
  • Pixton — from the Old English personal name *Picstan, from pīc “point” + stān “stone.”

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