Nomen est Omen

Weird and wonderful are the names that people burden their children with, and it isn’t only the Beckhams. It’s been going on for a very long time – you have only to read your Bible.  In slightly more recent times, the Puritans didn’t stop at labelling their offspring with virtues like Patience and Prudence, but saddled their babes with slogans too. You can check some of them out here.

Noteworthy among these are the Barebone brothers: “Jesus-Christ-Came-Into-Thibarbop001p1e-World-To-Save” and “If-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned.” You’d have thought that, with a surname like Barebone, a simple Christian name like Jack or Jim would have sufficed. But not for their daddy: his name was “Praise God” Barebone and he wanted his sons to go one better.

Barebone indeed!

Praise-God was a particularly pious member of the Parliament called by Oliver Cromwell in 1653. The Parliament was named after him – Barebone’s Parliament. His second son was known as “Damned Barebone,” not the greatest of appellations, so he wisely renamed himself Nicholas Barbon.

Nicholas Barbon, English economist, physician ...

Nicholas Barbon, English economist, physician and financial speculator. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He was something of a wheeler-dealer and after the Great Fire of London in 1666, he became involved in various reconstruction projects. Worried that he might lose his investment, he formed what is thought to be the first fire insurance company in 1667.

But it wasn’t only the Puritans. Pity the little boys called Sacheverell Sitwell or Isambard Kingdom Brunel. With a moniker like that, they simply had to become famous. Yet another solution when the babies keep arriving and you are running out of relatives to name them for, is to number them – hence Sextus, Septimus and Octavia. I have never met a boy named Sue, but I did know one called Hilary and another called Clare, not a very kind trick for parents to play.

I’ve always been grateful to my parents for giving me a name that is internationally acceptable, not particularly dated, and doesn’t come loaded with negative associations – like Adolf or Benito, in themselves quite pleasant names – or impossible ambitions, like Napoleon. I suppose a female equivalent might be Boudicca or Godiva. And I have read somewhere  – possibly an urban myth – of a woman naming her twin girls Syphilis and Gonorrhoea. She claimed she had never heard these words before and thought they had a pleasant ring. Hopefully, someone enlightened her before she reached the font.

Researching my family tree hasn’t turned up any very exciting names: a multitude of Janes, Elizabeths, Susannahs and Marys, James, Johns and Williams, several Jeremiahs and Jonahs, a couple of Phoebes and a Lionel, a Luce and my aunt whose middle name was Lille, since my grandmother believed that’s where her husband was fighting in 1915. He was actually at Ypres, so my aunt had a narrow escape with that one, otherwise she’d have gone through life answering to “Wipers”.

However, back in the mid sixteenth century, my tenth great-grandmother had the evocative name of Goodith Ancleye. I have never come across either of these names before, and wondered if Goodith was an illiterate clerk’s misspelling of Judith, until Google revealed two quite well-known present-day Goodiths: Goodith White and Goodith Heeney.  So the name is still in use.  Not one I would recommend to my grandchildren to be passing on though, especially in Switzerland where the English “th” poses a pronunciation problem. Still, I’d like to know its origin. Perhaps it is only a variant spelling of Judith. Or was there an Anglo-Saxon name like Godwitha that evolved into Goodith?

Goodith White is a linguist, so perhaps I could ask her if she knows the etymology of her name. If she tells me, I’ll tell you.

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10 thoughts on “Nomen est Omen

  1. Very interesting subject, Cath. In Germany there existed very strict rules which names you were allowed to give to your child. It had to be a German name! Our first two children were born in Germany in 1957 and 1958. At the time,the name you gave the child had to indicate whether the child was male or female, for instance you were not allowed to give a boy a female name! These rules may have changed over the years. What with the influx of people from different countries with names that had no similarity with German names?
    With the influx of migrants to Australia a lot of people come up with names here which are very difficult to spell or pronounce. I am not just talking about family names but first names too. Often these very difficult names quite often get over time somehow shortened and adapted to English pronunciation..
    I know the names of my ancestors up to the early 1800s. None of the names seem to be in any way unusual but quite ordinary.

    • Oh yes, Ura – I remember that, and a list of names in the back of the Stammbuch that included some very Wagnerian-sounding ones – Kriemhilda and Clothilda, for instance. In Switzerland there are also still some restrictions e.g. if you call a child Andrea or Nicola – which can b boys or girls – you have to add a second name indicating the sex of the child.

  2. A fascinating topic in these cross cultural ages we live in. Pronouncability is important and can be a challenge when families wish to acknowledge more than one culture in a name. It’s always interesting to look at old school photos and then look at a modern one to see how much the names have changed, I guess in time the modern names of today will become old-fashioned as well, but it seems as if there is little tradition left in it.

  3. I feel another post on this topic coming on! Yes, it’s interesting how names go in and out of fashion. One reason I’m grateful for my own name – our family tree in Britain, Germany and France has Catherines/Katharinas in every generation.

  4. Sigh. We all know about pronouncability… however hard we tried, and choosing pretty names for our three girls, they all got mispronounced within our international family and then promptly abbreviated into rather-less-pretty nicknames by the girls themselves and their friends, something we had actively attempted to avoid! Ah well. Our granddaughter will always be Muriel in Granny’s mind… ❤

  5. Goodness me, you dipped deep into my meory bank there. I remember the Barebone Parliament, and the cult of producing odd names, long before Beckham and co got the idea. Luckily both I, and mu daughters have since solid and unremarkable names

    • Surely you aren’t THAT old, Ducks? I suppose it was good luck that cromwell was called Oliver and not “The-Lord-Will-Avenge” or similar. Though there is now President Goodluck Johnson …

  6. Pingback: What’s your (n)omen? | Thoughts of Sam Isaacson

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