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The first people to settle the American continent and live in what is now the United States were, of course, those we call the Native Americans. But by the early 1500s they had been joined by wave upon wave of European immigrants. In what is now the west and south of the United States, the Spanish sent missionaries to convert the natives and soldiers to subdue them. To the north, the French sent fur trappers and traders to exploit the vast natural resources of the New World. The Swedish formed a small colony in Delaware in 1638, and the Dutch colonized New Amsterdam (New York) in 1624. All, however, were overwhelmed by the waves of English and English-speaking settlers who grabbed the East coast and began trickling west. The initial influence of Native American, Spanish, and French names was limited mainly to place names.
All talk of multiculturalism aside, the basis, the starting point, the framework of much of American society and culture is, basically, English in origin. Most American names, as well, are English in origin. So, then, to England we must first go.
Before the Thirteen Colonies
The first successful English settlement was Jamestown, in what is now Virginia (an earlier settlement, Roanoke Island, disappeared in 1585). Jamestown was a project designed by English merchants out for a profit; it was made of neer-do-well adventurers who only wanted to get rich, quick.
The initial English settlers (nearly all of them male) brought along their typically English names. The Central Pool of Names in England, at that time, was representative of several traditions: the Normans names (Germanic-French conquerors of England in the 11th century), the Medieval Church (which favored saintly names like John and Thomas), and the new Reformation Tradition (Biblical names, especially from the Old Testament).
The Normans were a race of Scandinavian (Germanic) Vikings who conquered and settled what is now Normandy, France. In 1066, under Duke William (known to the English as William the Conqueror), they invaded the island and subdued the native Anglo-Saxons. Although Germanic in origin, they spoke a dialect of French, and their Germanic names were altered to reflect it. The Germanic Willahelm became William, Hrodberht became Robert, Haimirich became Henri, and Hrothgar became Roger. Some well known Norman names are Adela, Alan, Alice, Bernard, Emma, Geoffrey, Gerald, Gerard, Godfrey, Henry, Hugh, Ida, Louis, Matilda/Maud, Millicent, Oliver, Ralph, Raymond, Richard, Robert, Roger, Roland, Rosamund, Walter, and William. Favorite Norman names from non-Germanic sources include Constance (Latin, Constantia), Denis (Greek Dionysus), Brian (Gaelic), Maurice (Latin, Maurus).
After the Norman Invasion, during the Middle Ages of England, religion was central to everyday life. And that religion, of course, was that of the Roman Catholic church. In that day and time, most people were far more familiar with the lives and exploits of the the saints and apostles, rather than with the stories of the Bible itself (this later led to the Protestant Reformation). Their children were named after these popular saints and favorite apostles (many of which had Grecian or Latin names). Biblical names not borne by a saint were few and far between. Girls, especially, were named after the four, great virigin saints of St. Agnes (Annis), St. Katherine (Catherine), St. Margaret (Margery), and (to a lesser extent) St. Barbara.
Some other, favorite, medieval saintly names include Ambrose, Anastasia, Basil, Benedict, Bridget, Cecilia/Cecily/Cicely, Denis, Dominic, Francis, Gregory, Jerome, Joseph, Laurence, Lucien, Mark, Martin, Mary, Michael, Nicholas, Patrick, Peter, Philip, Sebastian, Simon, Stephen, Teresa, and Thomas.
The English Protestant movement (helped by King Henry VIIIs break with the the Roman Catholic church) was firmly established by the sixteenth century and reached its zenith with the Puritans of the 17th century. The Puritans turned away from saints and cathedrals and other Catholic traditions. Instead they emphasized pure, strict Biblical teachings. Their names reflect this; once they were established, about the early 1600s, they spurned (to a certain degree) many saintly names and instead ransacked the Bible (especially the Old Testament) for Hebrew and Aramaic names for their children. In previous centuries, many of these names had been considered Jewish, and not used. Some of the more successful Old Testament names were Aaron, Abigail, Abraham, Adah, Benjamin, Beulah, Daniel, David, Deborah, Esther, Hannah, Isaac, Jacob, Jeremiah, Joshua, Judith, Miriam, Moses, Naomi, Nathan, Nathaniel, Noah, Rebecca, Rachel, Ruth, Samuel, Sarah, Solomon, Zachary. New Testament names, as well, were used to a greater extent than before (Martha, Silas, Timothy). Even minor New Testament names belonging to insignificant characters (Bernice Chlöe, Dinah, Dorcas, Edna, Ethan, Felix, Jason, Jemima, Lois, Lydia, Priscilla) were dusted off and introduced. Other (unfortunate) children received more esoteric Biblical names like Amaziah, or Abishag.
The Puritans also had a tendency to give their poor children names like Fights-Sin, The-Lord-is-Near, or Fight-For-Faith. In a more reasonable mode, this led to words and qualities also being given as names, such as: Charity, Constance, Faith, Grace, Hope, Humility, Love, Mercy, Patience, Prudence, Temperance. Educated Puritans might give their children the same types of names, in a more learned, Latin format. Such name include Amity (Friendship), Felicity (Happiness), Verity (Truth). These types of names were usually more typically given to girls (presumably because of the lack of women in the Bible) than to boys. An interesting exception belongs the Pilgrim brothers Wrestling and Love Brewster.
This is actually reminiscent of early, Latin-speaking Christians who gave themselves names like Felix (Happy), Victor (Winner), Vincent (Conquer), or Pious (Devout). Indeed, some names like Constant/Constance, or Amis/Amice can be found throughout the Middle Ages. However, many of these Latin-based names were usually avoided by the Puritans because many of their bearers were saints, and saints were papist and therefore somewhat taboo.
The Original English Settlers (1600s)
In Jamestown in the early seventeenth century, six names (representing each of the three major traditions) were shared by fifty percent of the men: William (Norman), John (Saintly/Biblical), Thomas (Saintly/Biblical), Richard (Norman), George (Saintly), and Robert (Norman). In 1620 a group of English (not exactly Puritans, but close enough) sailed for the New World, settling in Massachusetts. Their names also reflected the English tradition, only with (due to their faith) a higher percentage of Biblical names. The top names of the Pilgrims were (for men) John, William, Thomas, Edward, and Robert. For females, the top three names were Mary, Elizabeth, an Sarah (all three are Biblical names). One also finds names like Moses, Patience, Hester, or Samuel.
Other popular names among the early American settlers include the Biblical Daniel, David, Gabriel, Michael, Peter, James, and Nathaniel. Other Norman names still used included Jeffrey, Henry, Hugh, Edward (actually an Anglo-Saxon name revered by the Normans). Saintly names like Anthony, Nicholas, Francis, Peter were also still used. Old traditions die hard.
The typical English and Biblical names brought by the initial settlers formed the major core of American names for the next three hundred years. However, fashion still played a part and trends would still come and go.
The Age of Reason (18th century)
One of the central influences of the Age of Reason was the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans, rediscovered during the Renaissance. American intellectuals were especially drawn to their works and many of the formed many an argument for the Revolution. For girls, the new fascination was revealed in Latinized forms of previously used names. Many girls (especially in upper class, well-educated families) were named Maria, Cecilia, or Anna (instead of the older Mary, Cicely, or Ann), and Louisa (instead of the French Louise).
As a consequence, many children (again, especially those from educated families) were given classical names like Alexander, Anthony, Augusta/ Augustus, Aurora, Claudia/Claudius, Homer, Horace/Horatio, Julia/Julius, Lucia/Lucius, Melissa, and Sophia. Also gaining popularity were names from mythology like Phoebe, Diana, Cynthia, Helen, or Phyllis. Though never becoming popular, or even common, names from Ancient literature like Cicero, Cato, or Cassius, were also occasionally found.
Surnames and the 19th Century
The 19th century is when the practice of giving surnames as first names exploded in both Britain and the United States (usually only among those belonging to the Protestant faith). It often began when boys were given their mothers maiden name, either as a first or as a middle name, in order to keep the mothers name alive. John Smith marries Jane Doe, for example, and is named John Doe Smith. His sons might be named John Doe Smith, Jr and called Doe to distinguish the boy from the father. His neighbor might like the sound of that and name his son Doe Jones. Doe is now a name.
Other such names include Brandon, Cody, Craig, Dale, Dustin, Gary, Randall, Rodney, Russell, Scott, Stanley, Taylor, Todd, Travis, Tyler, or Wayne. As the practice of giving the mothers maiden name as a middle name began in Scotland. Scottish surnames (especially aristocratical Scottish surnames) were especially prone to this sort of transference. Some of the more well known include Bruce,Cameron, Douglas, Dudley, Fraser, Gordon, Graham, Grant, Howard, Keith, Kyle, Leslie, Lindsay, Logan, Mackenzie, Marshall, Ross, or Stuart. For generations, these kinds of names only existed in families connected with the original surnames (Percy Bysse Shelley was a cousin of the Percy family, for example). Gradually, they would spread out to the rest of the population.
The surnames-as-first-names fad soon died down in Britain, but was and continues to be very strong in the United States. Children would receive the surname of of popular hero. Many American children, for example, were christened after Revolutionary War figures (Washington, Jefferson, Elmer). Later, after the Civil War many Southern children were called Lee, after Robert E. Lee, or Forrest for Nathan Bedford Forrest. Northern children were called Grant (Ulysses S. Grant), or Sherman (William T. Sherman). Naming a child after a favorite president was not unusual. Many good little Republicans were christened Roosevelt (Theodore Roosevelt), Grant (Ulysses S. Grant, again), Garfield (James A. Garfield), McKinley (William McKinley), or Harrison (Benjamin Harrison), while many good little Democrats may have been called Cleveland (Grover Cleveland), Wilson (Woodrow Wilson), or Roosevelt (Franklin D. Roosevelt). And religious parents began giving reformers last names to their children, such as Luther, Calvin, and Wesley.
During the 1600s, as well, middle names had become increasingly popular among the upper classes. During the 19th century, especially in the United States with its classless society, middle names spread to all classes. By the twentieth century, it was rare to be without one.
The Victorian Age (1830s-1900s)
There is a fashion in naming, just as there is in clothing and architecture, and fashion is nearly always set first by the rich and powerful. During the Victorian Age, the American elite aped the fashions of Europe, specifically, the fashions of England. The middle class, meanwhile, copied the elite and a whole new trend of naming was introduced to the United States.
During the Victorian Age, the British (and by extension, the Americans) participated in a major revival of many older names. Medieval romances (like Tennysons The Idylls of the King, and the collected works of Sir Walter Scott) often used obsolete names which then passed onto the general population. Some were Germanic/Norman names like Albert, Alfred, Edgar, Edith, Edwin, Ethel, Ida, Joyce, Matilda, Mildred, Oswald, Wilbert, Wilfred, or Scandinavian names like Eric. From the faux-medieval Arthurian legends came names like Arthur, Elaine, Gareth, Gavin, Isolde, Percival, or Tristan.
For girls, an old trend was revived: the practice of giving nicknames as full, official Christian names. These were usually Scottish in origin (such as Jennie, Jessie, Minnie, Cassie). Others were faux-Scottish, as it were, using the Scottish ie diminutive ending. Some examples of names incude Abbie, Addie, Annie, Bessie, Carrie, Elsie, Etta, Hallie, Hattie, Katie, Lena, Lizzie, Mamie, Mattie, Molly, Nellie, Polly, Sadie, Sally, Susie.
Many boys were dubbed Ben, Dan, Fred, Sam, or Tom instead of the longer Benjamin, Daniel, Frederick, Samuel, or Thomas.
Lovely Flowers and Precious Jewels (1800s)
During the late 19th century, many girls were saddled with feminine names from flowers and other dainty plants (Amaryllis, Blossom, Cherry, Daffodil, Fern, Hazel, Heather, Holly, Iris, Ivy, Laurel, Lavender, Lily/Lillian, Myrtle, Olive, Poppy, Primrose, Rose, Rosemary, Violet) or, to a lesser extent, jewels (Amber, Amethyst, Beryl, Coral, Crystal, Diamond, Ebony, Esmeralda (Emerald), Gemma, Jade, Jet, Onyx, Opal, Pearl, Ruby).
On the whole, however, the United States remained rather more conservative than the British. While Edgar, Herbert, and Florence certainly had their adherents, it was the more traditional names like John, William, and Mary that continued placidly to thrive. Biblical names, even the unusual ones, lasted well until after the turn of the century. Until the early 20th century, it was not uncommon to run into an Ezra, an Ezekiel, or an Hosea.
The Turn of the Century
The 20th century represented a whole new era, replete with new technology, new ideas, new morals, new fashions, and new names. The stronghold that Biblical and other traditional names had held on the United States finally began to weaken. John lost its hold as the number one name to Robert in 1926 and has never regained it. Mary held out a little longer, but finally succumbed in the fifties. Benjamin, Jacob, Esther, Hannah, and Samuel all dropped dramatically. The favorite, medieval names (like Agnes, Alfred, Arthur, Blanche, Emma, Ethel, Harold, Herbert, Ida, Mildred) of the 19th century also began their fall from grace. Many new names were waiting to take their places.
French and Russian Imports (1900s)
At the end of the 19th century, several feminine French names (some were French forms of Russian names) were imported to England and the United States. The more successful (some later than others) include: Denise, Jacqueline, Julie, Marie, Melanie, Michelle, Renée, Stephanie, Suzanne, and Valerie. The Russian names include Natalie, Natasha, Olga, Sonya, and Vera.
Nicknames, part II (1930s-1960s)
Since the 1600s girls had been christened with nicknames instead of the traditional full name. Many had been named Bess or Betty (not Elizabeth), Nancy (not Anne), or Peggy (not Margaret). Others such nicknames included also Fanny (for Frances), Kitty and Kate (for Katherine), or Sally (for Sarah). Later Bert (for Albert) was quite common. We saw this trend strongly arise in the United States during the late 19th century,
We saw it begin again during the 1930s when Betty, Nancy, and Peggy beat out Elizabeth, Anne, and Margaret. By the fifties, it became apparent that this quirk was also being used for boys. It became common for a young boy to be baptized Johnny, rather than John, Tony (not Anthony), Bobby (not Robert), or Jerry (not Jerome, or Jeremiah).
Sometimes these nicknames were based on the Scottish ie diminutive ending. Such names include : Billy (William), Bobby (Robert), Cindy (Cynthia), Connie (Constance), Jerry (Jerome, Jeremiah), Johnny (John), Larry (Lawrence), Tammy (Thomasina), Terry (Terence), or Willie (William). Other times, they were simply shorter forms of longer names, such as: Gail (Abigail), Linda (Belinda), Lisa (Elizabeth), Rita (Margaret), Sandra (Alexandra), Tina (Christina), Tony (Anthony), Tonya (Antonia), or Trudy (Gertrude). These types of names flourished from the 1930s to the 1960s.
The Celtic Revival.... (1950s-)
One trend worth noting, throughout the twentieth century, is the surge of popularity in Gaelic or Celtic names that began in earnest in the forties and fifties. Jennifer, for example, was an obscure Cornish form of Guinevere that suddenly shot up in popularity in the 1970s. At the beginning of the century, only a few Welsh names, like Gladys, or Lloyd had become common. Next, about the 1940s, Scottish names like Donald, Douglas, Duncan, Kenneth, Janet, Malcolm, Neil, and Ronald were in vogue (later, Ian).
During the 1950s, many Irish names caught on (Barry, Brian, Brenden, Connor, Deirdre, Duane, Kevin, Maeve, Neil, Rory, Ryan, Sean (Shaun), Shannon, Sheila, as well as names that were traditionally popular in Ireland (Michael, Patrick, Katherine) and Irish-influenced names like Erin, or Colleen.
Towards the end of the century, a few more Welsh names like Dylan, Meredith, Morgan, Megan, or Trevor gained adherents.
Certain Spanish names for girls like Anita, Juanita, or Dolores were also rather common.
Doing Ones Own Thing.... (1960s-)
Beginning in the fifties and sixties, parents began seeking unusual or rare names. They moved away (to a certain extent) from John, William, and Mary and embraced untraditional name types. These unusual names gradually grew in strength to dominate the later half of the twentieth century in the United States
Parents utilized many new or different sources for their childrens names. For girls, they used traditionally male nicknames like Robin (for Robert) or Jamie (for James) for girls, or they used place names like Kimberly. As the century drew to a close, parents increasingly chose surnames like Brent, Curtis, Craig, Spencer, or Troy to bestow upon their sons. Interestingly enough, the surnames most often chosen by parents are nearly always British, Scottish, or Irish, and thus, are perhaps unconsciously mimicking the habits of aristocatic British families.
Besides Ireland, many parents turned to other cultures, as well. The Germanic-based Lisa was an early example; or the Scandinavian Karen, the Italian Donna, the French Michelle, or the Swiss Heidi. That rather obscure Cornish form of Guinevere tyrannized the seventies and eighties, insuring many Jennifers, Jennys, and Jennas for years to come. The Russian male name Alexis was given to many baby girls in the 1990s as was the Ukrainian Mikayla. For boys we find the Greek Jason, the Dutch Derek, the Scottish Ian, the Welsh Dylan, the Irish Aidan and Brendan, and the Native American Dakota.
Now, as we straddle the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there are two trends evident in American naming patterns.
Old-fashioned names are making a strong comeback. Biblical names and traditional names (as well as those names that simply sound old-fashioned) dominate the top fifty list of 2000, such as Aaron, Abigail, Adam, Alexander, Alexandra, Anna, Anthony, Benjamin, Daniel, David, Elizabeth, Emma, Emily, Ethan, Gabriel, Grace, Hannah, Isabella, Jack, Jacob, James, John, Jonathan, Joseph, Joshua, Julia, Katherine, Maria, Mary, Matthew, Michael, Nathan, Noah, Olivia, Rachel, Rebecca, Robert, Samuel, Sarah, Sophia, Thomas, and William.
Even other old-fashioned names (such as Adeline, Asa, Ezekiel, Gideon, Lily, Nehemiah, Patience, Silas, Violet), while not popular, are on the rise.
Secondly, unusual names remain a very popular trend, particularly for girls (male names are always more conservative and there are still plenty of Williams, Johns, Roberts, and Josephs left in America). Surnames like Cody, Ryan, Tyler, Tanner, Dalton, Cameron, Hunter, are often used, the rarer the better. One surname will suddenly be used as a first name (like Kyle, or Todd), rise in popularity, then gradually fall as a new surname catches the parents fancy (such as Jackson, Austin, or Brandon).
The Gaelic Revival reinvented itself, dropping (to a certain extant) Brian, Kevin, and Kelly, and grabbing Caitlin (Katelyn), Brendan, Ciara/Kiara, Connor, or Aidan.
Unusual spellings like Alyssa (Alice), Kayla (Kelly, or Kayley), or Katelyn (Caitlín, or Cathleen) abound.
Certain Italian names like Arianna, Mia, Bianca, Carlo, Alessandra, Giancarlo, Francesca, Paola, Marco, Milo, Gianna, or Giovanni are also becomming trendy.
Made-up names like McKenna, Jayden, Chayton (they sound like a name) are rare, exotic coinages that live briefly, but spectacuarly.
Other place names have replaced Kimberley. A French-Celtic province gave many little Brittanys their yuppiesh moniker; a former English debtor colony did the same for all the little Savannahs, as did an English region for all the Chelseas.
What began with Robin and Jamie, continues into the 21st century. Traditionally male names (often originating from surnames) such as Alexis, Ashley, Courtney, Taylor, Hailey, Sydney, Madison, Shelby, Kendall, and Mackenzie are now often given to girls.
Even the popular Biblical names are of an unusual sort. Abigail, Zachary, Caleb, Ethan, Isaiah, Seth had been rarely used since the 19th century, in some cases, not since the 17th.
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