Personal names and the development of English

By Peter McClure

You may also be interested in Peter’s article on Surnames as sources in the OED.

A short history of English personal names

It is one of many linguistic consequences of the Norman Conquest that only a few of the original, native English personal names are familiar to us nowadays. In late Anglo-Saxon England, names of Germanic origin like Old English Godwine, Wulfsige, Dodda (all male), Cwēnhild and Godgifu (both female) were commonplace. In eastern and northern England, where Vikings had settled from the late-ninth century onwards, the name stock also included Old Scandinavian names such as Þorgeirr, Tóki (both male), and Gunnhildr (female). By about 1250 almost all of this extensive name-stock had been abandoned by the English in favour of continental names used by their Norman rulers. In most cases, our modern contact with the old native names is solely through hereditary surnames coined no later than the mid-thirteenth century, thus Goodwin, Wolsey, Dodd, Quennell, Goodeve, Thurgar, Tookey, and Gunnell. After 1250 only a handful of such names remained in general use, in particular Ēadweard, Ēadmund, Cūđbeorht (which was popular in northern England), and Ēadgýđ, which we know in their Middle English forms Edward, Edmund, Cuthbert, and Edith.

The Norman name-stock largely consisted of continental Germanic names with a French pronunciation (such as William, Robert, Richard, Hugh, Maud, and Alice) and names from the Bible or from saints’ legends (like Adam, John, Thomas, Beatrice, Cecily, and Margaret).

For some brief histories of individual personal names in the revised OED, see Margaret, Mary, Peter, Philip, Richard, and Robert.

From the mid-thirteenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries, John, Thomas, Robert, Richard, and William named between them over 70 per cent of the male population. Clearly, people were christened from a much smaller and more stable name-stock than we are familiar with today. In late fourteenth-century England there were probably fewer than a thousand names in use. The top male name John was borne by about 35 per cent of men, and the top female name Alice by about 17 per cent of women. By contrast in 2009, according to the Office of National Statistics, 60,900 different names were registered as names of babies in England and Wales, and the top boy’s name Oliver and the top girl’s name Olivia together accounted for less than two per cent of the 706,248 babies born in that year. The one major disturbance to the stock of English personal names during the period 1250-1750 arose from the sixteenth-century reformation of the Church, whose Puritan activists preferred to choose names from the Old Testament (for example, Abraham, Isaac, Samuel, Abigail), or to coin new names, especially for girls, based on Christian virtues (Charity, Grace, Prudence, Temperance).

A note on pet forms of personal names

In late medieval England there was a much greater variety of hypocoristic or pet forms than in modern times, perhaps reflecting the competitive nature of relatively small, close-knit communities.

As many as nine diminutive suffixes were commonly used in Middle English pet forms, viz. French el, et, ot, in, on, un (often used in combination, like elot), Flemish kin, English cok, and also y (a reduced from of  in?). All but y disappeared from general use during the post-medieval centuries, though some survive today in fossilized name-forms like Robin, Marion, and Janet. Rhyming pet forms were also popular, notably for short forms of male names in R-, like Ralph, Richard, Robert, and Roger, where substitution of initial R- by D-, H-¸and N- produced Daw, Haw, Dick, Hick, Dob, Hob, Nob, Dodge, Hodge, and Nodge.

Pet forms of names beginning in a vowel were often given a prosthetic consonant, e.g. Ned and Ted for Edward or Edmund, and Bib, Lib, Nib, and Tib for Ibbe, which is short for Isabel. Jack, the most common pet form of John in medieval England, was a borrowing of a Flemish shortening of Jankin.

Many of the pet forms with French suffixes had become obsolete by the sixteenth century, while names in kin and cock remained popular into the seventeenth century. They often survive in surnames, e.g. Hewitt (Hugh), Ibbotson (Isabel’s son), Dawkin (Ralph), and Adcock (Adam).

The relative stability of this name-stock and the extreme popularity of a few names over such a long period of time were underpinned by the role of baptismal names in expressing family relationships. Most boys were named after their father, grandfather, uncle, or godfather, and many girls were similarly named after their (grand)mother, aunt, or godmother. From the late-eighteenth century through to the twentieth, this tradition has steadily weakened, as a combination of Enlightenment values, industrialization, and Romantic individualism has encouraged parents to draw on names from outside the immediate family.

Anglo-Saxon names such as Alfred, Edgar, and Audrey (in their Middle English forms), and Norman names like Raymond, Reginald, Walter, and Maud have been revived, while others have been borrowed from abroad or from the Celtic name-stocks of the United Kingdom, usually in anglicized forms. We have Albert from Germany, in admiration of Queen Victoria’s consort; Derek from the Low Countries; Valerie from France; Gwen and Owen from Wales; Donald, Fiona, Ian, Kenneth, and Malcolm from Scotland; Kevin,  Maureen, and Sheila from Ireland. Many new names have been coined for girls from words connoting perceived feminine attributes, e.g. plant names like Daisy, Heather, Lily, and Violet, and names from precious stones like Beryl, Jade, and Ruby.

In the nineteenth century the desire to name a child after a member of the family or a godparent was increasingly satisfied by using a middle name, which could be a personal name or a surname (of the mother’s father, perhaps, or the godfather). Surnames consequently appear as first names, too, some of which have entered the general name-stock: Bruce, Douglas, Graham, Keith, Leslie, and Stuart are Scottish in origin, Trevor is Welsh, and Rodney, Stanley, and Shirley (popularized by Charlotte Brontë’s use of it in her novel of 1849) are English. In the twentieth century, British personal names have been more and more influenced by American taste, such as the liking for girls’ names derived from place-names (Beverley, Chelsea, Iona) or from compounds and blends (Joleen, Leighanne, Marilyn), which may be spelled in a variety of idiosyncratic ways.

The current English name-stock is larger and more varied than at any time in its history, and it is changing with an ever greater speed, with even the most popular names moving in and out of fashion within less than a decade. New names are freely created, though few of them become commonly used unless coined or adopted by influential celebrities. It is also harder than it used to be to identify what is meant by ‘English’. The devolved and multi-cultural Britain of the twenty-first century has many name-stocks rather than a single English one.

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Personal names in the OED: words for people

The generic use of personal names has been widespread in English since the late medieval period, when a very few names were so popular that they could be used to denote anyone or anything that was typical. There are three main sense categories: first, words or phrases denoting ordinary people, sometimes implying social disapproval; second, words or phrases for useful man-made objects, especially labour-saving devices; and third, words or phrases for non-human creatures, real or imaginary. Some of these words originated in now-obsolete pet forms, not all of which have yet been identified in the unrevised explanations of the OED.

The alliterative Jack and Gill have been the prototypical names for every ordinary man and woman since at least the fifteenth century, out-competing Tom and Tib (recorded in 1606). By extension they have become words for any lad or lass, for a servant, or for someone of the lowest rank in an occupation. They are often found in phrases like Jack-of-all-trades, and compounds like Jack-Tar ‘sailor’ (first recorded in 1781), lumberjack (1831), and steeplejack (?1881). Both Jack and Tom have been used for the knave of trumps in a pack of cards, and Tib for the ace. Children’s toy people include Jack-in-a box and doll, a pet form of Dorothy.

For other examples of other male names used in these ways see Bob n. 7, Bobby n. 1, Dick n. 1, George, Harry n. 2, Jock n. 1, Jockey, Joe n. 2, John, Johnny, Jemmy, Thomas, and Tommy n. 1.

The main generic sense ‘a man or woman of the lowest class’ has frequently been specialized to denote someone of low intelligence or morals. Male names have been used for simpletons, and include Daw, Dawkin (obsolete pet forms of Ralph), Hodge, Nodgecock (Roger), Hichcock, Hick n. 1 (Richard), Hob n. 1, Dobby (Robert), Jack fool (see Jack n. 1), Tom-fool, and Tommy n. 1. Female names have been used to denote coarse women or prostitutes and include Doll n. 1, Gill n. 4, Kitty n. 1, Judy, Malkin, Meg n. 1, Mab, n. 1, and Mob n. 1 (both pet forms of Mabel). They have also been used as terms for effeminate men and homosexual men, as in Betty, Jenny, Mary, Molly n. 1, Nancy, and Peggy n. 2. Vice versa, tomboy has denoted a bold woman or boisterous girl since the sixteenth century, while in twentieth-century slang Tom n. 1 and Tommy have the sense ‘a prostitute’.

A note on Maud, Mary and some of their shared pet forms.

Maud was a hugely popular name in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries but went out of fashion by 1500. Many of its pet forms (Mall, Moll, Malkin and other diminutives) were then transferred to Mary, which in spite of Puritan dislike of saints, had become the favourite girl’s name by the end of the sixteenth century. Derived words include:

  • Maud n. 1 ‘an old woman, a hag’, first recorded a1500, a sign that the name was by then old-fashioned
  • Moll n. 2, ‘a girl, a prostitute’, first recorded in 1604
  • Poll n. 2 (from 1600) and Polly (possibly from 1616) ‘a parrot’, rhymed on Moll(y);
  • Malkin (also Molkin), a word with a wide range of denotation:
    ‘a servant or country girl’, first recorded in c1250
    ‘a wanton’, first recorded in c1390 (Chaucer, Man of Law’s Tale)
    ‘the female genitals’, first recorded in 1602. Compare merkin n. 1, from another obsolete pet form of Mary; Fanny n. 4 (an eighteenth-century pet form of Frances), and the male equivalents Dick n. 1 and Willy n. 2).
    ‘an impotent or effeminate man’, recorded as early as a1425 and as late as 1933
    ‘a mop, a bundle of rags fastened to the end of a stick for cleaning an oven’ (1440)
    ‘a sponge attached to a jointed pole, used for cleaning out ships’ guns’ (1867)
    ‘a scarecrow, a ragged puppet or grotesque effigy; a guy’, recorded from a1565 until 1930
    ‘a hare’, recorded in 1706 (Scottish)
    ‘a cat’, recorded from a1616 (Shakespeare’s Macbeth) until 1876 (in Scotland)

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Personal names in the OED: words for useful objects

The use of personal names to denote useful man-made objects is partly an extension of the sense ‘servant’ and is partly anthropomorphic. ‘Malkin’ has already been mentioned as a word for a long-handled mop or sponge. The spinning jenny was first so called in 1789. Jemmy, first recorded in 1811 as ‘a burglar’s crowbar’ is from a pet form of James. Any contrivance that turns, lifts, or holds stands a chance of being called a jack while Tommy n. 1 has been widely used to denote workmen’s food, especially bread. In the sense ‘something small of its kind’, both jack and tommy are used to denote small devices—such as sockets, levers, spanners, and wrenches—or other small objects like the jack in a game of bowls or the flag flown at the bow of a ship, the origin of the Union Jack.

There is a long-standing practice of ‘christening’ powerful mechanical contrivances, such as large bells, artillery, mill engines, blast furnaces, and more recently boring machines and wind turbines. Large bells are frequently named Tom, such as Great Tom and Tom of Oxford. However, great guns and machines more often have female names (which has interesting psychological implications), and only occasionally male ones, as in the guns named Mons Meg, Big Bertha, and Long Tom.

The source of the word gun

A siege engine, in the form of a giant crossbow, was named Domina Gunilda (‘Lady Gunild’) in an Anglo-Latin document of 1330-1. However, the usage probably goes back much further.

Gunnild was a well-known female name in the twelfth century but was obsolescent or obsolete by 1250. Shortly after 1300 gonnilde appears as a word for a cannon (a1325 in the Middle English Dictionary) as does gun, from the pet form gunne (1339 in OED).

From gun comes gunner ‘a cannoneer’ (1334 in OED), but a much earlier example appears in the surname le Gunner (1238-9 in a Dublin Guild merchant roll), which may alternatively have meant ‘an operator of a siege engine’.

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Personal names in the OED: words for non-human creatures

Anthropomorphic relationships with the natural and supernatural worlds have long been expressed through the use of personal names. Examples include:

  • the garden flower sweet-william
  • the wild plants Jack-by-the-hedge and ragged-robin
  • the personification of a sharp frost as Jack Frost
  • the marsh gas ignis fatuus, called Will-o’-the-wisp or Jack-a’-lanthern
  • the bird guillemot, a French pet form of William
  • the name dobbin for a cart-horse, a pet form of Robert, as is Hobby in hobby-horse; cf. cuddy (Cuthbert), dicky (Richard), and neddy (Edward) as names for the donkey (a pet form of Duncan?)
  • the insect tommy-long-legs, an obsolete word for the crane fly or daddy-long-legs
  • words and names for imps or sprites, such as hobgoblin n. 1, dobby, roblet, and Robin Goodfellow, all from pet forms of Robert

The male and female of a species of the domestic cat are identified in tom cat, gib-cat (from a pet form of Gilbert, see gib, n. 1,), and tabby cat (from a pet form of Tabitha, see tabby n. and adj.). Gill n. 4, short for Gillian, is for the female of polecats and ferrets, as hob n. 1 is for the male, while nanny-goat (from a pet form of Agnes or Ann) is for the female goat as willy-goat (Willy n. 2) and billy-goat are for the male. Jenny, however, is a nickname for the wren of either sex, and also for plant names such as creeping Jenny. The same is true of robin n. 1, which occurs as the name of many birds, fish, and plants. The pied wagtail (of either sex) was once known as Molly washdish and Peggy dishwasher, from the incessant to-and-fro of the tail (see molly n. 1, peggy n. 2). Jack and Tom can denote smallness in bird names like jack snipe and tomtit (as does Dicky in dicky-bird), even though Tom is more generally used to indicate relative largeness (as in tom-toe for the big toe).

Choice of personal names for birds can be onomatopoeic. Jack in jackdaw probably echoes the bird’s call. Similarly the ‘hoohoo-oo-oooo’ cry of the tawny owl may explain why houchin and howlet appear as dialect words for owls, for they derive from Old French and Middle English huchon and hulot, pet forms of Hugh, the vowel originally being pronounced ‘oo’.

Pet forms of Margery and Margaret have been prolific sources of words for creatures, including:

  • magpie (also maggoty pie), the bird name
  • meg(gie)-many-feet (or –many-legs), nicknames for the centipede and millipede
  • moggie, a cow or calf, and any sort of domestic cat of either gender
  • padge, a rhyming form of madge n. 1 ‘a barn owl’
  • peggy n. 2, a bird name for any of the warblers

The corpus of currently-used words derived from personal names is dwindling as many old words are lost and few if any new words are being created in this way. The practice has inevitably declined in modern Britain, because the name-stock is so much larger than it was three or seven hundred years ago, and the most popular names are usually only briefly so and are borne by a tiny proportion of the population. As a significant source of generic terms the personal name has now been supplanted by the surname.

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. as well as personal names, Peter McClure has also written on the place of surnames in the development of English with examples from the OED Online.
  2. other free articles on the ‘shaping of English’ include Bernadette Paton on loan words for textiles.

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