Friday, 12 October 2012

Naming names, by H.M. Castor

John: not a popular king, but a very popular name.
Illustration from Cassell's History of England (published 1902)
via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
Are you affected by the name you are given? Was the boy in my primary school class who was called Stone any more of an original thinker because of his unusual name? (I remember vividly that there was an ‘Easter garden’ competition, every child making a garden the size of a small tray. Everyone – myself included – went for the traditional moss-and-flowers look. Stone went for sand. Minimal & brilliant – at the age of about 7. And he won.) Conversely, did my 6 fellow pupils in a 7-strong ballet class I attended as a teenager mind that there was only one girl in the class who was not called Sharon? (Although all 6 names were pronounced the same, there was some variation in spelling: a Sharron, for instance, and a Charron too.) Is your name an unusual or a common one? And, either way, are you - as they say - bovvered?

As I mentioned in my post last month, I have been fascinated by first names for decades. Each year I read with interest the news item reporting the most popular baby names for the past twelve months. In the chart for boys’ names, Jack had a remarkable run of 14 years in the number-one spot, until in 2009-2010 it was overtaken by Oliver and, last year, by Harry. Still, it has dropped no lower than 3rd place. Jack - now most often given as a name in its own right - was originally a diminutive of John. The linguistic origins of this connection seem, from my internet delvings, to be the subject of some debate, though it is clear that both Jankin and Jenkin were diminutives of John, and it’s not such a big leap from there to Jackin or Jack. (Incidentally, I find it interesting that the –kin ending survives these days in such forms as ‘bunnykins’… a different use for a truly ancient form of ‘pet’ name!)

In recent times the dominance of Jack has puzzled me. Not that it isn’t a nice name – it is. But for one name, however appealing, to top the charts year in year out seems both surprising and intriguing. Picking up George Redmonds’ excellent book Christian Names in Local and Family History, however, made me realise that 14 years is nothing: I was fascinated to discover that the dominance of John (in one form or another) goes back century after century.


Redmonds has made a study of names contained in the poll tax records of ten English counties for the years 1377-81 (and the lists make fascinating reading). More than a third of the men counted during this period were named John. Yes, really. More than a third. It dominated right across the regions, from Yorkshire to Sussex, from Devon to Essex, and crossing social boundaries too. According to Redmonds’ research, the name John had risen to popularity in the early 13th century and remained at the top for centuries - despite the fact that England’s one and only King John enjoyed such a bad reputation. It was only in the 19th century that John was overtaken at certain times by William (the name, incidentally, that had occupied the no. 2 spot in every region in 1377-81), but even then it fell no lower than second place.

That level of dominance is surely remarkable (and no, huge apologies, but I can’t offer to explain it – I can only bring it to you as an Interesting Fact, like a cat proudly laying a mouse at your feet). This popularity existed not only in England, for the parallel names Iain in Scotland and Ieuan in Wales, plus equivalents elsewhere in Europe, show strongly in the records too, as well as surnames meaning ‘son of John’ such as Jones and Johnson.

What, then, is the equivalent for women? The answer seems to be that there isn’t one. Joan, Jane & Janet (the latter originally a diminutive) were all very popular names, but none achieved the dominance of John. It seems that from medieval times to the present day it has always been the case that parents are happier, by and large, to choose from a somewhat wider pool of names for girls than for boys. One statistic mentioned by Redmonds did surprise me, however. I would have expected the name Mary to have represented quite a large chunk of the pie in the 1377-81 poll tax records. Not so. There are only nine Marys amongst the 10,000 people counted in that 1377-81 sample - making the name more unusual than Godelena, Idony, Avice and Denise.

One reason for the continuing popularity of a name within any family is of course inheritance. We are all, no doubt, familiar – even if only at a distance – with the idea that eldest sons in a certain family might traditionally bear one particular name. Or one of two – Redmonds mentions that sometimes families alternated, e.g. between Henry and Hugh. (No doubt that helped reduce confusion – a little.) My own maternal grandfather’s family, which had the tradition of naming the eldest son William, got around the problem with the habit of the Williams being known by their middle names – my grandfather, for example, christened William Donald, was known as Don.

(But I must add that this habit surfaced in my grandmother’s family too, quite separately from any eldest-son considerations - both my grandmother and one of her sisters were known by their middle names. Can anyone shed light on this – was it a popular practice at a certain time?)

From the medieval period through to the 17th century, however, it was not just eldest sons who might bear matching names – quite often siblings were called the same name too. This, as Redmonds wryly points out, is “disturbing now to family historians”. Though no confident explanation can be given, child mortality rates, multiple marriages (with the eldest son of each wife being given the father’s name, for example) and children being named after godparents, are all possible explanations. Certainly godparents – who in many cases chose the name – as well as kinship groups and ties related to patronage were strong influences on naming habits; when Redmonds mentions the will, made in 1500, of Dame Jane Strangways, who left money to her 5 god-daughters – all called Jane – it puts me in mind of the young Mary Queen of Scots surrounded by her four companions, all called Mary.

Demonstrating your connections via your child’s name mattered – so too, often, did aspirations. Today, parents might be influenced by films, the media or books (does Harry’s place in the no.1 spot currently have anything to do with J.K. Rowling, do you think?). Though the technology has changed the basic instinct is far from a new phenomenon. In the 14th century, names such as Percival, Gawain and Tristram were taken up from Arthurian tales, and it was a clear piece of aspirational propaganda when Henry VII – seeking to strengthen the image of the all-too-new Tudor dynasty – called his eldest son Arthur (even making sure that the baby was born at Winchester, where the round table reputed at the time to have been King Arthur’s was kept).

Delightfully, one 15th-century wealthy landowner, Robert Bolling, called his three sons Tristram, Rainbrown & Troilus. Redmonds comments: “His reasons must surely have had something to do with his status as a gentleman and the names would certainly have drawn attention to his family right through the neighbourhood… [The prestige of Tristram in particular] would have helped to authenticate the Bollings’ claim to a long & distinguished pedigree…”

A name so unusual that it will stand out and be noticed has had an allure for parents of every age, it seems. As for Robert Bolling – in that aspect of his choices, at least – so for David & Victoria Beckham, whose children are called Brooklyn, Romeo, Cruz and Harper, and for the Coldplay frontman Chris Martin & the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, whose children are named Apple and Moses. Being inventive – or eccentric – has a long and proud history. Last month I mentioned Castilian Morris, born during a siege of Pontefract Castle. Another favourite of mine, mentioned by Redmonds, is Anvilla, the daughter of a 19th-century blacksmith. But if you really want to go to town, just watch this Horrible Histories sketch about Victorian names. Minty Badger gets my vote!





Christian Names in Local and Family History, by George Redmonds, is published by The National Archives.

H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII - is published by Templar in the UK, Penguin in Australia, and will be published by Simon & Schuster in the US next year.
H.M. Castor's website is here.

20 comments:

Michele said...

As a child/teenager, I got sick to death of people singing "Michelle, my belle" at me. I won't even bother mentioning the fact that even after knowing me for years, some people still misspell my name to the more common 2 Ls variant. And even at nearly 44, I *still* keep my eyes open for folks who spell it with the one L - like Michele Dotrice.

Joan Lennon said...

Fascinating - thank you!

Laurie said...

Love it! And as you say, all those Johns are a nightmare for genealogists. I fell with joy on a Skeffington and a Clevansy when I found them in my family tree.
Great post.

Katherine Langrish said...

I love Anvilla! And yes, my mother and her two sisters were/are all known by their middle names... I have no idea why.

Pamela Hartshorne said...

Fascinating. Although interesting, I think, that so few fictional heroes are called John, certainly in the romance genre which is where I wear my other hat (am probably opening myself up to a blast at my ignorance here!) I wonder if John wasn't considered particularly high status. There was only one King John, and we know what happened to HIM!

I'm sure there's a thesis to be written on names. I've been fascinated by variety of names in records from Elizabethan York, for instance. A surprising number Arthurian names and my favourite, a smith called Hercules Welbourne.

Mark Burgess said...

Fascinating stuff Harriet, thank you. As someone who enjoys family history research, I can only agree how useful it is to come across more unusual names. There are many Johns, Jameses and Williams in my tree and not one Minty, Happy or Toilet. The best I can do is Cornelius Flood Woodman, a music teacher. I imagine him as the typical Victorian gent, side whiskers and starched collar.

Mary Hoffman said...

I wrote a book about names in the 80s. Fascinated by them. I once upset an ex boyfriend by saying John, which was what he was called, was "a waste of a name"!

Ann Turnbull said...

As a child I was very "bovvered" by my name! It was the commonest girl's name then and I thought it was plain and boring. I wanted to be Melissa, or Chloe, or Daphne. But I have come to terms with Ann, and now feel it's a good, classic, indeed queenly name, even if it's not fashionable at the moment. (And my family call me Annie, which I like.)

adele said...

Daphne is my middle name and I like it a lot better than my first name which is a pain because I have to keep telling people about the accent. But even without the accent, Adele reminds me of a fat opera singer...which is a bit what I'm like I suppose.Daphne is a very SLIM sort of name!

Mark Burgess said...

Perhaps not a good idea to be called 'Storm':
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-19930269

H.M. Castor said...

Blimey, Mark, yes! Thanks for the clip. And thank you all for a brilliant collection of very interesting comments. Adele, isn't it fascinating how we get feelings or images about names? And how much they can differ. 'Adele' doesn't conjure a fat opera singer for me! And I'd love to read your names book, Mary - I will look for it.

Many thanks to everyone!

K.M.Lockwood said...

In my adopted family's background there was a Tempest Pollard -I wonder what images that conjures up for you?

H.M. Castor said...

What a great name!

Ann Turnbull said...

When I first saw the name "Adele Geras", it made me think of a ballet dancer - definitely not a fat opera singer! And I thought it was French.

Bridget Whelan said...

Common names most give rise to a rich variety of nicknames. In Ireland surnames have remained regional throughout the centuries (I suspect because people tended to leave the island of Ireland rather than migrate within in it) so you often find villages dominated by two or three surnames. Added difficulties arise because up until relatively recently it was traditional to name first son after the paternal grandfather, second son after maternal grandfather etc etc so there could be numerous John O'Sullivan's (for example) in a village and in the graveyard.
Me? I quite like my name (second daughter, named after maternal and much loved grandmother) because it together with my married name creates a combination that, while not especially unusual, is now so old fashioned if you google me, my website is usually in the top three. I also tend to get to know other BWs. There's a lovely one in Melbourne with a similar email address who sometimes tells my creative writing students off when they write to beg another week's grace in handing in a short story homework...

H.M. Castor said...

I love that, Bridget! And that's very interesting, both about local surnames and about the tradition of naming after grandparents being a factor in siblings bearing the same name. That may well have been a factor in English naming practices too. Many thanks for commenting.

Joss Alexander said...

Loved this blogpost - very interesting. I came across 'Galyon Hone' when researching my novel and as soon as I saw it the character jumped into life - it was such a powerful name. Names are so fascinating. Thanks - will check out the books mentioned.

Leslie Wilson said...

Bridget, I remember being fascinated by my husband telling me about a village in the Glens of Antrim where everyone had the same name..
As for John, when my eldest daughter was small, if she wasn't sure of a man's name she would call him 'John' as a default option. 'Hans' which is a derivative of Johann or Johannes, is a similar kind of common denominator in German folklore, hence 'Lucky Hans.'
Michele, I sympathise! People are always spelling my name Lesley, or even getting angry with me for spelling it the way I do. 'It's not normal.' Particularly the older generation can get really shirty about it..and I didn't even choose to spell it that way, it was my parents. And I would rather they'd called me Sophie...

Michele said...

Leslie - I empathise - my dad opted for my unusual spelling. (Mind, if I'd been the son he wanted instead of a disappointing daughter, I'd have been Michael Jr, or just Junior, no doubt!)

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