Episode 117: What’s In a Name?

The origin of modern naming conventions can be traced to the period immediately following the Norman Conquest. Prior to the Conquest, almost all people in England had a single Anglo-Saxon name.  After 1066, parents gave their children names borrowed from French and from the Bible.  People also started to acquire second names based on their landholdings, place of origin, parent’s name, or some personal characteristic.  These were the beginning of many modern surnames. In this episode, we explore the history of English names, and we examine how naming conventions reflect the evolving culture of England in the Middle Ages.


48 thoughts on “Episode 117: What’s In a Name?

    • That would make my life easier. We’re members of an organisation that my parents were/are members of (my father is deceased). When I meet people who know my parents, I’m often saying something along the lines of “Hi, I’m Laetitia; Bill and Bev’s daughter.” That would be condensed to “Hi, I’m Laetitia Billdaughter Bevdaughter” (although maybe it would be with my parents’ proper names rather than their diminutive versions).
      Of course, it wouldn’t help my husband who finds himself introducing himself as “…; Laetitia’s husband” so that people have a connection reference. 🙂

    • I remember this from when I lived in Iceland. The children of “Einar” would be named “Einarsson” or “Einarsdöttir”. A trend that started in the late 20th century was to sometimes give a daughter her mother’s name. So if Einar and Margret had a daughter Anna, she might be Anna Margretsdöttir rather than Anna Einarsdöttir.

      • Children using the formation “daughter of” or “son of” is still practiced in Russia as well, and I believe some other Slavic regions. It’s called a patronymic. You amend the suffix -ovna to the father’s name for “daughter of” and -ovich for “son of”. So Ivan’s daughter Svetlana would call herself Svetlana Ivanovna and his son Roman would call himself Roman Ivanovich. Family and friends will generally call you by your given name or a nickname, but in a formal setting, you’d be addressed with your first name and your patronymic.

  1. Very enlightening and helpful to those of us who are family historians and amateur genealogists! Looking forward to the next installment. 🙂

  2. Hi, another great episode thanks.

    On the subject of the de prefix having disapeared from surnames. It still appears in surnames where the placename began with a vowel. Names such as Deveraux ( meaning from Evreux in Normandy) and Darcy (of Arcy) . my favourite, however is De’ath. ( I did once hear of a doctor with that surname).

  3. On the subject of common folk being called of somewhere, the patron Saint of Rochester in Kent is a baker called William of Perth. He was murdered on his way back from a pilgrimage to Canterbury in 1201.

  4. Your bit about Margaret to Mags is also interesting. Mags is, I understand where the name of the bird Magpie comes from. We often named animals after human names. Magpie meaning Coloured Margaret. Another example is the Robin. I know this is a diversion but it is an interesting one.

    • Interestingly, the “mag” in magpie does come from Margaret (presumably to indicated “chattiness”), but the “pie” does not mean colored; rather, it comes from the Old French pie and ultimately the Latin pica, meaning “woodpecker (or magpie).” The “pie” in piebald, however, does indicate color (spotted or blotched with black and white) because it comes from magpie+bald.

  5. I’ve always suspected that at least some nicknames originate as mispronunciations made by younger siblings, i.e. ‘Betty’ is much easier for a toddler to say than Elizabeth. Any thoughts on that possibility?

    • It’s certainly possible. However, according to my research, unintentional mispronunciations were a relatively small factor. I think the origin of most common nicknames have been identified by modern scholars, and most follow a regular pattern or have a more clearly traceable history.

  6. Hi Kevin Stroud, you are pretty cool teller unfortunanetly im not good at speaking english and cannot normally make out of what you talk of its about 35% of what you tell but its still fun to learn english through your podcasts like i do like germanic languages though i wanna be understanding all of those podcasts you have ever made as i marked earlier you are cool thanks for all your podcasts i hope others like them as much as i do.

  7. Thank you for creating this podcast. I’ve been a fan since day one

    I found it super interesting that an “R” in the middle of a name would be at times turned into an “L”.
    I speak Spanish. My parents are from Venezuela and Cuba. I live in South Florida, where there are Spanish speakers from various places. In my observation, Puerto Ricans have a tendency to put an “L” sound when an “R” falls in the middle of a word. So for example: When spoken, Puerto Rico becomes “Puelto Rico”.

    • Thanks for the feedback. I suspect that the tendency for the ‘L’ and ‘R’ sounds to become confused has to do with the fact that linguists classify both sounds as “liquid sounds.” Even though they are consonants, they both have vowel-like qualities because they are pronounced in the open cavity of the mouth with air being constricted around the tongue with very little friction (unlike vowels which have no friction). Just as vowels have a tendency to shift around, so do the liquid sounds.

      • Hi, I recently discovered your fascinating and wonderfully well-presented podcasts.

        Regarding L and R, native Japanese speakers have a very difficult time separating the two because the Japanese R sound (ra, ri, ru, re, ro) is formed with relatively firm tongue lightly or almost touching/tapping the upper, front ridge of the mouth, making it physically closer to an English D than an English R. This is the closest native Japanese sound to the English L, which makes the L very difficult to pronounce, and in fact they even have difficulty hearing the difference between English R and L sounds.

        This suggests that perhaps the R/L interchange in Spanish stems from the Spanish R sound being made more forward in the mouth and with a firmer tip of the tongue, making it closer physically to a D/L.

        • Stephen, what you said about Japanese is absolutely true. My children have cousins in Japan named Rui, Ryo, and Rina, but my mother-in-law pronounces them as Louie, Leo, and Lena. She speaks English very well, but when she reverts to Japanese, she doesn’t distinguish the two sounds in her head.

          She also likes to tell how hard it was for her when my father-in-law insisted on giving my husband first and middle names beginning with ‘R’ and ‘L’, respectively!

    • Thanks for the link! By way of coincidence, I was listening to an old episode of the ‘Talk the Talk’ podcast today, and they were discussing this very study. The funny thing is that it was one of their early episodes from 2011 (Episode 20 to be precise) because this study was originally completed back in 2011. Anyway, it’s a fascinating study. Thanks again.

  8. Notes on Cockney rhyming slang: usually only the first word of the rhyming couplet is used. For example “have a butcher’s” means have a look, from “butcher’s hook”; “use your loaf” means use your head, from “loaf of bread”; “telling porkies”, from pork pies (lies). By the way the internet is infested with long lists of rhyming slang expressions, including extensive folk etymology, and fanciful neologisms (Britney Spears = beers) but only a small number is in day-to-day use.

  9. Pingback: Five Faves 11-30-18 • Katie Quinn • History of English; Book Exchange

  10. My surname is Ellsworth. I’ve been able to piece together than an ancestor emigrated to the US, likely in the 1850s, from the town of Elsworth in Cambridgeshire. Elsworth appears to mean the farmstead or maybe enclosure of a man called Eli. I’m curious of the origin of the word -worth. Have you come across it in your research? I’ve seen it spelled Eleswurth and Elesuuorde in the Domesday Book. After hearing your bonus episode from the Harvard lecture I’m wondering if it is related to the PIE -were rootword. There seems to be a logical connection between the words enclosure guard or the original sense you mentioned of looking out for something.

    • According to the sources I used for these episodes about surnames, “Ellswoth” is indeed a locational surname based on the name of the town of “Elsworth.” “Worth” was a common suffix in place names. It is derived from the Old English version of the word which was “worþ” and meant a homestead, village or other enclosed place.

  11. As always this is an impressing episode from your hand. This time you gave me the obvious explanation to a Danish word, which I sometimes wondered about. The English word nickname or as you said (n) ‘ekename’ still is called ‘ögenavn’ in Danish. I could not see what ‘öge’ had to do with the phenomenon nickname. But as ‘öge’ still means ‘to increase’, ‘öge’ is of cause meant in the sense of ‘additional’, and written together as ‘additional-name’. With all your knowledge about Old English, some Old Norse and your abilities, it should be quite easy for you to learn to read both German and Danish.

    • Thanks! I actually have an idea to explore the connections between English and the other Germanic languages in the future when this podcast is complete.

  12. Pingback: What’s in a Name? – Grammar Logic and Rhetoric

  13. Hi Kevin. Loving these name episodes. You mentioned the “son”, “O” and “Mc” prefixes of England, Ireland and Scotland but not the “Ap” prefix in Wales. I wondered if you were aware of it. Sion ap Gwilym means Sion is the son of Gwilym for example.

    • This gives rise to names like Price (ap Rhys), Bowens (ap Owen) and Pugh (ap Huw). So it’s less obvious today because we can’t see the “ap” where we can still easily see “O’ ” and “Mac”.

  14. You said that the Gaelic O-names (O’Connor, O’Brien) signified “son of” (at around 35:20) in Irish. This is incorrect. It actually designates “grandson of”; Irish uses both Mac- and O- forms. Also interesting is that these were gender specific, so female names were not Mac and O’ but Ní (or Nic) and Uí, respectively. Thus, in contemporary Irish, a brother and sister will have slightly different surnames due to the difference between “(grand)son of” and “(grand)daughter of”. It may be also interesting to note that toponyms did not have any influence on Celtic naming practices.

  15. You wrongly suggest that the Gaelic prefix “O” (e.g.: O’Connor) is Irish for “son of” (at about 35:20). It is not. Both “O” and “Mac” exist in Irish and the former designates “grandson of”. Interestingly Irish also distinguishes between genders, so that “Mac” and “O” become Ní (or Nic) and Uí to signify daughter and granddaughter, respectively. It might also be worth noting that toponyms are not a feature of Celtic naming practices for people.

  16. Interesting and fun to learn where all of these names come from and how some of them have become so pervasive in the language. One thing you said that I have heard differently is the nickname Ned for Edward. According to John McWhorter, this comes from a rebracketing of [mine] [Ed] -> [my] [Ned], much like orange and apron.

    • I am familiar with that theory, but it wasn’t the primary theory I encountered. It may have some merit though.

  17. Hello just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know a few of the pictures aren’t loading properly.
    I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it
    in two different browsers and both show the same outcome.

      • Ya got “issues”, eh? It’d be interesting to see an episode on the lifecycle of buzzwords. An “issue” used to be a “subject of discussion”, it the became a synonym for “bug” and thence and euphemism for “problem”.

  18. How and when did colonel acquire the r sound? Or maybe the l in the spelling. I happen to be reading an alternate history science fiction in which it is spelled coronel. Is that the original?

    The history forks from ours when Richard doesn’t die from the arrow but recovers and governs for another 20 years, avoiding John, and holding on to an eventually enlarging his French holdings.

    • If you check the IPA consonants chart you can see that to pronounce “l” and “r” you put the tip of your tongue at the very same spot. Hence the possible confusion above all after a plosive. Cf Spanish vs Portuguese blanco/branco, playa/praya, plato/prato…

  19. Thanks for spending so much time on my name! A lot of people don’t realize that Jack is a nickname for John, so I frequently get questions about it when people find out that my real name is John. It seems like too long and complicated of a story to share when people ask, but at least I know now. As a US southerner who is not a fan of the baseball team from NY, I definitely won’t bring up the “yankee” connection.

  20. Cooper is related to the Dutch surname Kuiper. A kuip is a tub, vat or keeve. Though our ui is a specific vowel that is hard to pronounce for non Dutch, it sounds closely related.
    A brand new thing is called a spiksplinter nieuw ding in Dutch.
    So also I learned a lot about Dutch etymology in this episode.
    In fact, old English almost sounds like Dutch!
    Anyway, just to let you know I am a big fan of this podcast! Thanks!

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