A history of Names

LRB has a history of naming conventions, focusing on ancient Greek names. However, it has interesting things to say about historically-recent names as well:

n the early 1800s, nearly 25 per cent of all females in the United Kingdom were called Mary. If you add to these many Marys the crushing numbers of Elizabeths, Sarahs, Janes and variform Anns (Nancys, Nans and Hannahs), you would have the Christian names of something close to 80 per cent of the female population. There was a similar pattern with Johns. About one fifth of all males in the UK between 1800 and 1850 were christened John and the vast majority of the other men and boys around at the time were Joseph, James, Thomas or William.

Around 1850, however, the repertoire of names in regular use began to increase rapidly. As Gothic-looking steeples rose around the country, so medieval-sounding names crowded around the font: Arthur, Walter, Harold and Neville, Ethel, Edith and Dorothy, soon to be supplemented by endless Geoffreys. This remarkable efflorescence has been described as a ‘personalisation’ of names, although since in this period the ‘proper’ name one gave to registrars and census enumerators might very well be supplemented by a highly personalised nickname – Old Tom, Long Tom, Short Tom, or even, according to Rev. Alfred Easther, a 19th-century Yorkshire dialectologist, Wantem, Blackcop and Muddlinpin – it might better be described as an outbreak of name-consumerism, as parents increasingly invested their energies in baptismal choice.

…Ancient Greek names were much closer to those of pre-Conquest than post-Conquest England. Just as we translate Native American names such as Tashunka Witko (‘Crazy Horse’), Tatanka Iyotake (‘Sitting Bull’), Woqini (‘Hook Nose’) and Tashunka Kokipapi (‘Young Man Afraid of His Horses’), and even those of the ancient Maya (King ‘Jaguar Paw II’, ‘Smoking Frog’, now renamed ‘Fire Is Born’), so we could refer to famous Greeks as ‘He Who Loves Horses’ (Philip), ‘Masters (with) Horses’ (Hippocrates), ‘Flat-Nose’ (Simon), ‘Stocky’ (Plato), ‘Famed as Wise’ (Sophocles).

…There is plenty of evidence not only that ancient Greek names could be meaningful but that they were meant. It is no accident that an Athenian potter named his potter-to-be son ‘Good with His Hands’ (Eucheir), or that ‘He Who Loves Horses’ named a daughter ‘Thessalian Victory’ (Thessalonike), and there is some evidence for political sloganeering in the use of demos names under the Athenian democracy: Democrates, Demosthenes – (over-)glossed by Thomas de Quincey as ‘The People’s Fulminating Might’ – or just Demos, i.e. ‘The People’, the name given to Stocky’s step-brother, a son of Fire-Bright (Pyrilampes).

…For some unknown reason, the most popular name in almost every region was Dennis i.e. Dionysius – ‘Of Dionysus’. Other common god-names, Apollonius, Apollodorus, Demetrius – ‘Of Demeter’ – were usually in the top ten. For centuries after their deaths the names Philip and Alexander were also very popular, but especially in the region that includes Macedon, where Alexander was the second most popular. The city of Athena on the other hand provides the most examples of Athenodorus and Athenodotus. Achilles-names, including Achillodorus, are popular in the Black Sea region, where the hero had important cults.

If you ever want to know more about the statistics of names, Wolfram Alpha is a great place for information – if you’re in the US.

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