Tuesday, December 6, 2011


The history of names is so ancient that no one knows the beginning of the story. Since written history began, and as far back as oral history reaches, people have had names. It is therefore impossible to do more than guess at how the earliest given names were chosen. Most names appear to have had some sort of original meaning, usually descriptive, rather than being simply a pleasing collection of sounds.
These descriptive names developed both from nouns and adjectives. Examples of name descended from nouns are the Irish Gaelic names Conan "hound, wolf" and Aed "fire." Irish Gaelic names derived from adjectives are such names as Fial "modest, honorable, generous" and Finn "fair, bright, white." A more elaborate descriptive naming practice is exemplified in the Bible, when Rachel names her last son Benoni or "son of my sorrow" and his father Jacob renames him Benjamin "son of the right hand" (Genesis 35:18).
Many early names were compounds. For example, the following Frankish names are compounds: Sigibert (victory­shining), Childeric (battle­powerful), Fredegund (peace­battle) and Radegund (counsel­battle). Sometimes such compounds in pagan societies referred to their gods. For instance, the ancient Norse had many names which were compounds containing the name of the god Thor. Among the male names were Thorbjorn, Thorgeir, Thorkell, Thorsteinn and Thorvald, and among the feminine names were Thordis, Thorgunna, Thorhalla, Thorkatla and Thorunn.

Early in prehistory some descriptive names began to be used again and again until they formed a name pool for that particular culture. Parents would choose names from the pool of existing names rather than invent new ones for their children. As time went on the language changed and in many cases the words that formed the original name passed out of use, leaving the fossilized form in the name. This is why we do not recognize the meanings of many names today. Their origins are in ancient languages from words that have passed out of use. For instance, the name Edwin was originally composed of the Old English words ead, which means "prosperity, fortune, riches" and wine, which means "friend." Both of these words have passed out of the language in the intervening thousand or so years. On the other hand, a word which has not radically changed forms the first part of the Old English name Wulfgar. The word may have changed spelling somewhat, but the word wolf is still recognizable. (The second element gar means "spear.")

With the rise of Christianity, certain trends in naming practices manifested. Christians were encouraged to name their children after saints and martyrs of the church. The oldest of these names were Jewish and Greco­Roman names. The names of the apostles and other prominent early Christians mentioned in the New Testament were often Jewish, such as Mary, Martha, Matthew, James, Joseph and John. The early Christians lived in the Roman empire, and it is among the other peoples of the empire that they first began to convert non-­Jews. As a result of the persecutions in the early centuries, many Greco­Roman names entered the Christian name pool in commemoration of the martyrs and saints, such as Anthony, Catherine, Margaret, Mark, Martin, Nicholas and Paul.

These early Christian names can be found in many cultures today, in various forms. These were spread by early missionaries throughout the Mediterranean basin and Europe. At the same time pagan nations newly converted to Christianity did not abandon their original name pool. Native martyrs and saints soon arose in every culture and their names would be added to the pool of Christian names available to Christian parents. The Christian name pool sometimes preserved names that would have otherwise fallen out of use. For example, most Anglo­Saxon names fell out of use within two centuries of the Norman Conquest of England. One that did not, because it was the name of a famous saint, is the name Edward, which is still in use today.

By the Middle Ages, the Christian influence on naming practices was pervasive. Each culture had its pool of names, which were a combination of native names and early Christian names that had been in the language long enough to be considered native. The naming pools did continue to evolve, so that a selection of ninth century Frankish names bears little resemblance to a selection of twelfth century French names. The interesting thing is that the "early Christian names" changed the least in most name pools.

Surnames developed from bynames, which are additional identifiers used to distinguish two people with the same given name. These bynames tend to fall into particular patterns. These usually started out as specific to a person and became inherited from father to son between the twelfth and sixteenth century. The aristocracy usually adopted inherited surnames early on and the peasants did so later. Some of the specific types are: the patronymic (referring to the father or mother), a locative or toponymic (indicating where a person is from), an epithet (which describes a person in some way) or a name derived from occupation, office or status. (Information taken from this article...there is much more if you'd like to check it out)

One person lived who had more names than any other. They followed the patterns shown here and were descriptive in many ways...

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