First Names in History
The topic of first names is a fascinating one, in part because it is something that we all have in common. The naming of a child is always a monumental decision for parents, and it is the first gift that a new child is ever given. The popularity of names in the English-speaking world tend to follow trends and change with the times, as we know. The name Ashley, for example, which is very popular for girls today, was a moderately popular name for boys in the 19th century, but then fell out of use for nearly a hundred years.
Looking back through the history of English-speaking names can be a surprising journey. The various conquests of the British Isles brought waves of changes in the popularity of first names, making first name history an interesting topic of exploration. Perhaps you will find your own name in this article, or even find inspiration for the naming of a new baby.
Let us begin with the names that were most common prior to the Norman (French) invasion of England in 1066. At this time, there were no such thing as surnames. Everyone had just one name. These Old English names show the influence of the Nordic invaders over the preceding centuries. Here is a list of ten names that would probably still be in common use, had it not been for the French influence, beginning in 1066.
During this time period in England, children were seldom given the same name as someone else in the family. Rather, parents would often create a new name for their child based on a combination of each of their names. For example, a mother named Ediva and father by the name of Alred might choose to name their child Aldiva or Edred.
The invading Normans, however, did have a custom of handing names down through the generations of a family. The English quickly transitioned to Norman names after the conquest, partly because the native English were considered second-class citizens, beneath the victorious Normans, so parents began avoiding labeling their children as such by giving them Norman rather than English names. As they began to use more and more Norman names, they also adopted the habit of re-using names in a family, resulting in the number of different names shrinking appreciably, and the Old English names quickly fading into the obscurity of history.
Here are some of the Norman names that came into use after 1066:
Since the pool of available names was diminishing due to the naming of children after someone else in the same family, it began to be confusing, with more and more people having fewer and fewer unique names. Here is where surnames began to evolve. One example of the creation of a surname is the use of "son" placed after a first name, to indicate that this person was the son of someone. Richardson is one example of a surname that continues to this day. So Alan Richardson would mean Alan, the son of Richard. Another way that surnames were created was to indicate where the person was from. For example, the name Geoffrey Heath would indicate that this Geoffrey was from the heath. A third way that surnames were introduced would be occupation names. Roger Wheeler, for example, indicates that this Roger is a wheel maker. By the end of the Middle Ages, surnames were in common use.
In the centuries that followed the conquest, the influence of the Christian church over the population grew. So did its influence on first names, as the church encouraged its followers to name children after Biblical figures. So, in addition to the Norman names we now had names such as these growing in popularity:
By the time English names made their appearance in the English colonies in America, after 1620, most children were given Christian names, or names derived from Biblical names. Old testament names were as popular as new testament ones, and some of these are very unusual. In fact, you may not even be aware that some of the following names, used in the English colonies in America, are even from the Bible!
Another way that new Christian names came into use was the Puritan practice of using what are called "virtue names". Most of these did not survive the period, as you can see by some of these examples of names found in Puritan records:
However, some of the women's names did earn moderate popularity for a few decades, such as Amity, Desire, Constance, Faith, Hope, Joy, Mercy, Patience, and Prudence. A few of these survive to this day.
The pool of first names was enlarged during the 18th century, when nick-names were popularized and many names were broken down into several diminutive names. A good example of this is the name Elizabeth, which became Liz, Lizzie, Ellie, Libby, Beth, Bess, Betsy, Eliza, Lisa, etc. An example of such a man's name is Robert, which became Rob, Bob, Bobby and Bert.
So, by the middle of the 19th century, the availability of names included a few Old English names that had survived, such as Arthur and Edward, the Norman names, like Elizabeth and Timothy, Biblical names like John, Ruth, Mary and Seth, as well as a few surviving virtue names like Faith and Charity. In addition, the nick-names that had spun off some of the more traditional names, such as Sarah becoming Sally or Sadie, and William becoming Will or Billy created a wider choice of names than there had ever been before.
Here are the top 10 names for men and women in the 1870's:
From the mid-19th century onward, the expansion of available names gave parents a wider and wider range of choices. It is interesting to note how the top 10 names in different decades has changed. Here is a table of the top 10 names for boys and girls:
And what are the most popular names today? The following were the top ten baby names reported by the Social Security Administration for 2010:
As you can see, some of these names have been popular in decades and centuries past, such as Jacob and Emily, while others are relatively new to the name scene, such as Jayden and Madison. Today there is a wider choice of name options than ever before, but they still tend to run in trends.
The Social Security Administration, in addition to having lists of the most popular names going back to 1879, has a fun feature where you can plug in your own name and see how its popularity has changed over the years. (don't forget to put in how many years back you'd like to go) Why not give it a try, and maybe even check out some of the popular names lists of different years. First names will no doubt continue to be a topic of fascination in generations to come, as we watch them evolve and change.
© Katharine L. Sparrow
* I would love for you to tell me your favorite boy's and girl's names in the comments!
My own general knowledge as a "name collector"
Social Security Administration
Book: First Names First by Leslie Alan Dunkling