On my bookshelf: The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names

When The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names (Third Edition) by E.G. Withycombe was recommended by a fellow name nut, I promptly headed over to Amazon to check it out and discovered all sorts of inexpensive options. The one I bought for $1.55 used to be in the Pasadena City College Library and has a big red “Discarded” stamp on it, which makes me love my copy even more.

It’s an awesome book, for a few different reasons:

(1) It provides commentary on each name, which is my favorite feature of any name book. Most of the time in this book it’s just the etymology and history of the name, which I find endlessly fascinating (e.g., “Egbert (m.): compound of Old English ecg ‘sword’, and beorht ‘bright’, the name of the traditional first King of all England (died 839) and of a Northumbrian saint (639-729). It seems not to have survived the Old English period, but was revived in the 19th C”), but sometimes it provides the author’s opinion, which often comes across as somewhat condescending, especially where Americans are concerned, and which I find endlessly amusing. For example, “Shirley (f): this is apparently a surname (derived from a place-name) used as a christian name. The first example noted is the heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley (1849), who, as an only child and an heiress, was given ‘the masculine cognomen’ Shirley, a family name. I have found no clue to the modern prevalence of Shirley as a christian name in the Southern States of USA. It has now become a common name in England, owing to the number of children named after the child film-star, Shirley Temple”. Another example is the pronunciation of Anthony: “The intrusive h in the spelling Anthony was a late development, and seems not to appear before the late16th C … the h is, of course, silent, but there is some danger nowadays of a spelling pronunciation (already in use in USA), and the older spelling is to be preferred.” Oh those stupid Americans and their “Anthony”! Another condescending example: “Dawn (f.): the use of this as a christian name is a 20th-C invention of novelette writers, which has sometimes been adopted in real life.” (I feel like it’s obvious, in just those few words, what E.G. thinks of novelette writers, and of those who have decided to use the name Dawn in real life.)

(2) It provides a British perspective, which is entertaining in its unfamiliarity. The example of Shirley above and its prevalence in the “Southern States of USA” is one, and the author’s habit of pointing out which families in England use certain names is another (e.g., re: Aretas, “The daughter of Aretas Seton, Governor of the Leeward Islands, married at the beginning of the 18th C Edmund Akers, ancestor of the present Lord Childston, and from that time the name has been in regular use in the Akers (now Akers-Douglas) family”). I also love reading how certain surnames arose from first names (e.g., “Brice (m.): St. Britius or Brice, Bishop of Tours 444, was responsible for the vogue of this name in England and France in the Middle Ages. It is probably of Celtic origin. Brice and the diminutive Bricot were fairly common in England in the 13th and 14th C and have left traces in the surnames Brice, Bryce Bryson, Brisson, Bricot.”) It’s sort of fascinating to me to see how the author’s country’s history is so immediate to him or her (there’s no indication anywhere in the book whether E.G. is a woman or a man) — details, genealogies, stories going back centuries are as known to him/her as American history is to me, I suppose, but then my sense of my local history is so comparatively short — a couple hundred years at most.

(3) It provides an intriguing perspective of Catholicism through naming practices. For example, “Loretta (f.): a name common in Roman Catholic use, derived from Our Lady of Loreto in Italy, a famous place of pilgrimage. Lourdes is used similarly as a christian name, but usually as a second name only.” I also find really interesting the allusions to Catholic/Protestant tension, often specifically in light of the Reformation, such as with “Blase … Blase or Blaze survived the Reformation and is found occasionally in the 17th C,” “Aloysius (m.) … used in Britain only by Roman Catholics,” “Barbara (f.) … It was still fairly common in the 16th C, but, like other names of non-scriptural saints, it tended to drop out of use after the Reformation,” and “Teresa, Theresa (f.) … It is first found as Therasia, the name of the wife of St. Paulinus, Bishop of Nola in the 5th C, who was converted by her. She was a Spaniard, and the name was for many centuries confined to the Iberian peninsula … It did not spread outside the Iberian peninsula until the 16th C, when the fame of St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82) carried it into all Roman Catholic countries. In recent times the popularity of the name in such countries has been increased by St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-97). It was not much used in England until the 18th C, when it was introduced by the admirers of the Empress Maria Theresia of Austria.” And Martin:

Martin (m.): Latin Martinus, apparently a diminutive of Martius ‘of Mars‘. St. Martin of Tours was a 4th-C soldier, later Bishop of Tours and apostle of Gaul; the story of his sharing his cloak with a beggar was a favourite subject of medieval art, and St. Martin was a favourite saint in England and in France; there are over 170 churches dedicated to him in England. Martin was a common christian name from the 12th C until the Reformation, and gave rise to many surnames, e.g., Martin(s)Marten(s)MartinsonMartel (from the diminutive Mart-el), Martlet (from the diminutive Martin-et). After the 15th C the name was less common, but never fell into complete disuse. The names of the birds martin and martlet are derived from Martin (cf. French martinet ‘swift’, martin-pecheur ‘kingfisher’).

As with most books on my bookshelf, I wouldn’t use this as a sole source of info on names, but it definitely fills out my knowledge of the etymology, history, usage, and reputation of many names used in the English-speaking world, including “Catholic” names.


11 thoughts on “On my bookshelf: The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names

  1. As an Australian, I can tell you that heaping scorn on Americans is the favourite pastime of Aussies and Brits. it’s the only way we can cope when confronted with the intense jealousy we feel when we think you all over there enjoying Starbucks on every corner and drive through banks and super fast internet and Amazon shopping etc. However it is all in jest and what we refer to ‘as taking the p*ss’. My in-laws are American but live here and it’s interesting to note the differences in cultural practices such as naming (which is an excellent example) even though we are all native English speakers of similar cultural background. My husband’s grandmother, from Texas, has turned up her nose at what many of her Australian grand-daughter-in-laws have named their children as being ‘too British’ and names she likes I have mentioned to my mother who has replied, ‘Ugh that is so… American!’ Naming is a very subtle art!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ahahaha Emma! This is such a great comment!! I would love to know what names your grandmother-in-law thinks of as “too British” and the ones your mom thinks are “so American”!


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