According to the Bible, one of the very first acts of free will exercised by man was the act of naming. And we’ve been doing it ever since.
Many of the most common names in circulation among English-speaking nations are borne from our concept of Western Civilization. It’s not to say we don’t carry quite a few of Eastern-based names, but for the most part, our focus is on Western Civilization and how personal naming developed among the early Mediterranean people, Continental Europe and the New World. Spanning from Antiquity to the early 21st century, these names comprise more than 80% of the names currently in circulation within English-speaking nations. So, how did we get here?
Rooted in Judaica
According to Judeo-Christian tradition, the earth was created in the year 3760 BC, so it could be said we’ve been naming for nearly 6,000 years. Some of the oldest names on record are those of Hebrew origin and their meanings generally fit with their respective “name stories” in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament). For instance, Adam (“earth”) and Eve (“living”) go without saying.
But are you familiar with these lesser-known origins?
- Lamech (Noah’s father) named his son whilst saying “He shall comfort us.” (Genesis 5:29)
- Apropos, Noah means “rest, peace, comfort” – something he brought to mankind after the Great Flood subsided.
- Abraham means “father of a multitude” – the ultimate patriarch of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
- Sarah named her son Isaac (“laughter”) because God gave her great cause for joy when he was born (Genesis 21:6).
Many Old Hebrew names feature God’s name in its core meaning: Michael (“who is like God?”), Daniel (“God is my judge”), Matthew (“gift of God”), Isaiah (“God is salvation”), Gabriel (“man of God”), Samuel (“God listens”), John (“God is gracious”), Nathaniel (“God has given”), Jeremiah (“God exalts”)...and the list goes on.
Names familiar to us from the Book of Exodus (Moses, Aaron and Miriam) are believed to have Egyptian roots, where these Biblical figures were born. The name’s meaning, in most cases, corresponds closely with that character’s story in the narrative.
The Impact of Greek Names
Meanwhile in Ancient Greece, the earliest evidence of naming practices also used compound names; i.e., two elements with distinctly different meanings brought together in some meaningful way, reflecting their own cultural values.
Some of the most famous examples are:
- Αλεξανδρος (Alexandros) “defender of mankind”
- Νικολαος (Nikolaos) “people of victory”
- Φιλιππος (Philippos) “lover of horses"
- Γεωργιος (Georgios) “worker of the earth”
Theophoric (god-bearing) names were also used in the pre-Christian Era:
- Διονυσιος (Dionysos) “Zeus of Nysa”
- Δημητριος (Demetrios) “earth mother”
- Ἀπολλόδοτος (Apollodotos) “given by Apollo”
- Θεοδωρος (Theodoros) “gift of god”
Theodoros later came to be repurposed easily from pagan to Christian times. The New Testament, originally written in Greek, had a profound impact on the spread and persistence of Greek names in Western Civilization.
The Ancient Romans and the Three Names
Concurrently, the Ancient Romans developed what is known as the tria nomina (“three names”), which was firmly in place by the first century BC. Initially reserved for members of the aristocracy, the tria nomina spread across the greater society for utilitarian reasons—it made for easier identification.
The tria nomina is made up of the Praenomen (given name), the Nomen (clan name) and the Cognomen (nickname).
Examples of the praenomen might be:
- Quintus (“fifth” born child)
- Lucius (child born at the “light” of dawn)
- Gaius (“rejoicing”)
The nomen reflected the child’s most important public name, an indicator of his clan membership and therefore social status. Examples include:
- Aurelius (“gilded, golden”)
- Aemilius (“rivaling”)
- Julius (“relating to Jupiter”)
Finally, the cognomen, a personal nickname, was the last to be established and almost always notated some physical or moral characteristic:
- Rufus (“red-haired”)
- Cato (“prudent”)
- Severus (“strict”)
- Cicero (“eloquent”)
Like modern nicknames, cognomen were not always auspicious! See if the taunting spirit behind these names ring a bell:
- Brutus (“stupid”)
- Nasica (“big nose”)
- Crassus (“fat”)
- Bibulus (“drunkard”)
Cognomen were eventually inherited and passed down with pride despite any original negative meaning. What was more important was the status of the name, which was elevated by the men who made something of it.
The Fluidity & Hybridity of Names
There was a lot of cross-pollination of names between the Ancient Greek and Roman societies. At various times in history, these distinctly separate empires were enemies, rivals, and begrudging admirers of the other. Because of this, they borrowed heavily from one another, in ways that are still evident today.
Take the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. With Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in the first century BC (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) came the expansion of Rome’s empire. Gaul was the region of Western Europe inhabited by Celtic tribes, as was Great Britain and Ireland. The Celts were a warrior people—fierce, spirited and masterful—and so their names reflected the values most important to them. Ancient kings, druids, and poets held lofty positions in their societies. Their colorful mythologies and reverence of nature and animals are also reflected in their early naming practices, many of which were absorbed by their Roman occupiers.
With the fall of the Roman Empire came the Dark Ages and the migration of Germanic tribes throughout Europe. The Visigoths famously sacked Rome in 410 AD and moved all the way down the Iberian Peninsula, peppering their dominions with names of Germanic origin. These names reflected their own warring nature and were made up of Old Germanic words equivalent to spear, protector, ruler, army, bravery, and the like.
The weakened Romans left what we now know as Great Britain in the late 4th century to defend their capital city of Rome, leaving the native Celts unprotected and open to invasion. The Anglos and the Saxons moved in (also Germanic in ethnicity), bringing their own language—forming the basis of Olde English—and their own variety of names. Hreodbeorht (i.e., the Olde English version of Robert) “bright with glory” is one such example.
By the Early Middle Ages, many of the Indo-European language groups (Greek, Latin, Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic) were being introduced to each other on a more regular basis through the movement of tribes across Europe, both by conquest and by peaceful settlements. However, it was really the Christianization of the Western World that would have the single largest and most profound impact on the development of personal names.
In the first centuries AD, the powerful Christian movement around the Mediterranean became impossible for the Roman Empire to ignore. Under Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century, Christianity became the state-recognized religion of Rome. Prior, when the Roman Empire was pagan, Christians were persecuted and martyred for their beliefs, prompting legends of miraculous proportions and inspiring cults of idolatry. There were virgin saints, protector saints, head-carrying saints, hermit saints, green saints, apostle saints, military saints, confessor saints, and child saints. All told, there are over 10,000 recognized saints.
Saints were the “celebrities” of the Middle Ages. When we look at the survival of personal names in the West, we can almost always look confidently for a saint. Medieval times were full of hardships stemming from feudalism, plagues, wars, infancy survival rates, etc. Naming a child after a saint was often seen as a protective measure—surely the saint would watch over the child from heaven, and God would look favorably upon name bearers of His beloved saints. Names of the Apostles were especially favored, and names borne by more than one saint (John, James) were seen as a double-dose of protection. Although we can find plenty of female saints (e.g., Catherine, Anne, Mary, Margaret), the act of feminizing names of the male saints was commonplace, as well.
For English-speakers, the Norman Conquest of 1066 had a profound impact on given names used among the Anglo-Saxons. Names brought to England by the Norman-French invaders replaced their Olde English cognates and/or introduced a whole new collection of monikers. The name William, for instance, became enormously popular as William the Conqueror ascended the English throne post-Conquest. His wife, Matilda of Flanders, likewise ignited the use of her name (though it was anglicized to Maud in Olde English).
Varying dialects across the country, and scribes rendering names on a “sounds-like” basis in written form did much to alter names as they evolved through time. Moll and Molly became colloquial medieval forms of Mary, but in another English dialect, Molly became Polly (similarly, Maggie and Peggie were both used for Margaret). The English also had a knack for rhyming names in the Middle Ages, which is how Rick and Dick both evolved from Richard, as did Rob and Bob from Robert, or Will and Bill from William.
As names became shared by many, pet forms and diminutives became necessary to distinguish one person from the next. Take Mary, which can be Mae, Mamie, Moll, Molly, Polly. Or John, which became names like Jake, Jack, and Johnnie.
The Emergence of Surnames
Around the 11th century, as Europe’s general population grew, the need to distinguish one John from the next became essential. There were generally four ways a surname was created:
- by occupation (Mason, Carter, Hunter)
- by location or topography (Landon, Bentley, Easton)
- by nicknames (Cole, Corbin, Griffin)
- by inherited names (Jackson, Hudson, Harrison) which are almost exclusively patronymic – i.e., passed down from the father.
Though very rare, there are a smattering of matronymic surnames like Madison (son of Maud), Emmett (son of Emma) and Anson (son of Agnes). Most likely these women were members of the nobility and landowners in their own right, elevating their surnames worthy to pass down.
The next massively significant impact on naming conventions in the West occurred as a result of the Protestant Reformation (1517-c.1648). Fed up with the authoritative control and rampant corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, the Puritans and other Christian dissenters desired to live more strictly by God’s Law. The Puritans believed the Bible trumped Roman Church tradition, and only God had authority over their souls. In 1565, Thomas Cartwright, a Reformed Church leader, advised of his Puritan followers that names should be taken directly from the Holy Scriptures “…those who are reported...to have been Godly or virtuous.” So they dutifully opened up their Bibles and renewed their eager connection to their original Hebrew God, whom they believed to be the Father of Christ.
This is how given names of Hebrew origin were revived and used beyond the Jewish population. Not surprisingly, we find the following Old Testament names on the list of Mayflower passengers: Isaac, Moses, Samuel, Elias (Elijah) and Solomon. Indeed, Old Testament Hebrew names were among the very first baby names dispensed in the earliest days of American colonization.
Remarkably, names have not changed that much in the Western World since the High Middle Ages, nor have the reasons behind their bestowments. Our names reflect the values of our parents, and the cultures and societies formed around them. Each name still carries so much meaning, not just through its actual linguistic word origin (i.e., the core meaning), but through its movement in time, and all the spirit and beauty it assumes during that journey. Our names still reflect the hopes and the dreams parents have for their children. We are each the hero of our own name story.
** This brief recounting of naming conventions in the West admittedly omits important trends. English-speaking nations are diverse, and the introduction of Arabic, Hindu, Persian, and various Asian-language names have been sorely neglected, as have the naming practices of African-Americans. These groups have offered a diversity of names, likewise given in the same spirit of cultural and loving significance.