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Julia Cresswell - What is interesting about First Names?

Julia Cresswell - photo writer author

First Names

While the main reason people buy books on first names is undoubtedly because they are parents-to-be looking for names for their forthcoming sprogs, there are many other reasons to be interested in first names.

One of the things that interests me most is the way in which names are records of social history.  This works in several different ways.  First of all, the names we use cover a time span of thousands of years, from the earliest times of the Old Testament – whenever they were – and the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans right up to the latest made up name.  Each of these different naming traditions reflect different customs, and each name had its own individual significance for that society.  The ancient Hebrews often used the names of plants or animals for first names – some have suggested this had some kind of totemic significance – as well as using circumstances surrounding the birth as a given name.  They also formed names from descriptive phrases involving the various names of God.  One of the distinctive features of their naming habits was that in early Biblical times these names were usually unique, created individually for each bearer.  In contrast the Greeks tended to repeat  the same names endlessly, each new generation being given the names of their grandparent’s generation, while the Romans used such a small stock of names – only about half a dozen common first names for men and none for women, with the other names indicating family relationships – that nicknames were rife and  many characters, such as Caligula, are still known to history by their nicknames.

Then there is the history of how these names were taken up by different cultures.  The most obvious example of this is the way that the whole of the Western world regularly uses Hebrew names such as David and John, thanks to the influence of Christianity.  Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that they do so unconsciously – after all John is thought of as a quintessentially English name, given to that unprepossessing national figure, John Bull.  But even this was not a simple swapping of one name tradition for another.  For the first thousand or so years AD most people in Western Europe continued their own naming traditions, although people entering religious orders might take a significantly religious name.  In Northern Europe most people happily carried on using names from the Germanic tradition, names which still survive in forms such as William and Robert. For people further south, around the Mediterranean, name traditions were often unchanged from the time of the New Testament, either in the Greek or Latin tradition.  This is why so many of the saints’ names are from these traditions.  St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) bore a name derived from that of the first Roman Emperor, which was originally a title meaning ‘elevated, august’; the slightly earlier St Dorothy got her name from the Greek for ‘gift of god’.  When people started deliberately choosing names because of their Christian associations it could represent a major break from ancestral tradition.  The names chosen were often those of saints rather than biblical figures, and the choice of name could fluctuate with the fluctuating popularity of different saints.  Fashions in religion could also have a significant influence on fashions in names.  The most obvious example of this is the rapid decline in some countries of the popularity of saints' names in the 16th century.  This reflected the switch from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism, with its rejection of the doctrine of the intercession of saints.  Religious names were still 'in', but now they were those taken from the Bible rather than those of saints.

Saints' names did not entirely disappear, but they were unfashionable right up until the late 18th century.  Their revival is linked to another way in which fashions in names reflect society. They are very much linked with changing tastes in other fields.  In this case the revival of Medieval names coincided with the revival of interest in the Middle Ages.  At first the names tended to appear only in fiction, but as happens today, people encountered the names in fiction and adopted them in life.  The popularity of the old names grew with the medieval revival in art and architecture.  Names which we think of as typically old-fashioned, such as Edith and Alfred, were in fact the hot new fashionable names of the 19th century, and at least in the case of the pet form of Alfred, Alfie, the cycle of fashion has come round again.

These are just some of the ideas about names that come out of the work I have done writing my many different books on first names.  I have tried to incorporate information that will let you draw your own conclusions.  So what makes the books I have written about first names different?  They will all give you the origin and meaning of each name, if known, and something of their history.  The newest is the Chambers Dictionary of First Names.  This has a good long introduction on the history of first names, and will have the most up-to-date information on popularity.  The material is presented in a slightly differently from the others, with different forms of the name in different languages being listed at the end of each entry, followed in some cases by names of famous bearers.  There are more foreign forms listed than in my other books, and the material is aimed not only at parents, but at genealogists, writers and other people with an interest in names.  Next most recent is Naming Your Baby.  This seems to have hit the spot with the first-name book buyers as it has usually been the number one names book on Amazon since soon after it came out.  It is the latest re-working of a book that first appeared as The Bloomsbury Dictionary of First Names and then as Best Baby Names.  Each version has been completely re-written.  The information in it is more integrated, grouping the dfferent variants of the same name together.  While it does cover the past history of the names, it focuses a bit more on current use. It is designed for use by the intelligent parent, who wants to know just that bit more about the name they choose and the implication of their choice. The oldest of  the general books is the Collins Gem.  This, like all the Gems, is designed to give the basic facts you need in a compact and easy-to-use form.

The Irish First Names and long-out-of-print Scottish First Names do what it says on the cover, giving the history and origins of names that come from those countries.

Next up – there is the prospect of a book on Celtic names for Chambers.

See also 'How important is your name?'

Julia Cresswell writer author About Us | Email Julia Cresswell | ©2007 The Software Mechanic . Site designed and maintained by the Software Mechanic