Sunday, February 05, 2012

What's in a Name? The Top Fifty Male Names in 1800

Last month, I wrote about the top fifty female names in 1800. This month, I’m looking at the top fifty male names in 1800.

They are as follows:
1-10: William, John, Thomas, James, George, Joseph, Richard, Henry, Robert, Charles
11-20: Samuel, Edward, Benjamin, Isaac, Peter, Daniel, David, Francis, Stephen, Jonathan
21-30: Christopher, Matthew, Edmund, Philip, Abraham, Mark, Michael, Ralph, Jacob, Andrew
31-40: Moses, Nicholas, Anthony, Luke, Simon, Josiah, Timothy, Martin, Nathaniel, Roger
41-50: Walter, Aaron, Jeremy, Joshua, Alexander, Adam, Hugh, Laurence, Owen, Harry

These come from research into parish records undertaken by the Names Society who also researched the fifty most popular names for 1700. What is interesting, is that the very same names from 1800 are also in the top fifty for 1700, though the order changed slightly. (The same, incidentally, goes for the female names.) Continuity was everything. Sons were named after fathers, grandfathers, godfathers or patrons of the family and the same names were perpetuated.

The name I had expected to find, however, which wasn’t there, though it may, of course, be further down the list, was Frederick. It was a newcomer to the name pool, entering via the Hanoverian kings in the late 18th century. Jane Austen, who, incidentally, uses all of the top ten names apart from ‘Joseph’ in her novels, uses Frederick twice, for the obnoxious Frederick Tilney in Northanger Abbey, and for her energetic and likeable hero of Persuasion, Captain Frederick Wentworth.

So, where do the names come from? Over half come from the Bible; John, Thomas, James, Joseph, Peter, Stephen, Matthew, Philip, Mark, Andrew, Nicholas, Luke, Simon, Timothy, Nathaniel and Alexander come from the New Testament. Some of them are Greek variants of Hebrew names but others (Thomas, Peter, Philip, Andrew, Nicholas, Luke, Timothy and Alexander) are entirely Greek – a demonstration of how the early Christian church spread through Greek-speaking Asia Minor.

Samuel, Benjamin, Isaac, Daniel, David, Jonathan, Abraham, Michael, Jacob, Josiah, Moses, Aaron, Jeremy, Joshua and Adam are Old Testament names which came into the name pool with the Reformation. These names tended not to be used by the gentry and aristocracy. The only Old Testament name Jane Austen uses is ‘Samuel’ for one of Fanny Price’s brothers in Mansfield Park – not a family of much social distinction. It is interesting to note that many of these names rose in status as the 19th century went on.

Of the rest, William, George, Richard, Henry, Harry, Robert, Charles, Edmund, Edward and Francis are names used by royalty, many dating back to Norman or even Saxon times, as with Edward and Edmund. Other Norman names include Hugh, Walter, Laurence and Roger, which retained their social cachet, witness Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion. And Mary Crawford, writing to Fanny in Mansfield Park comments on how well ‘Sir Edmund’ sounds.

Christopher and Martin, both saints’ names, came in during the Middle Ages and managed to survive the Reformation which discarded many saints’ names. Owen, though, is something of a puzzle. It was the name of the Welsh hero, Owen Glendower. It was also borne by Owen Tudor, grandfather of Henry VII, who married Catherine de Valois, widow of Henry V, but these scarcely seem adequate reasons for the name to reach the top fifty.

Personally, I like to give my heroes unusual names, though I make sure I use names that were at least known in the Regency. However, I usually use names on the above list for other characters to give an authentic ‘period’ feel.

Elizabeth Hawksley


Amanda said...

Elizabeth, this is fascinating and very useful. I like to give my heroes typical names as well, although sometimes I will give them a very different name to show they're an outsider.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your kind comment, Amanda. I'm delighted that you find my list of top male names useful.

I like your point about giving a hero an unusual name to show he's an outsider. Very clever and just right.

Sarah Mallory said...

Lpved this, Elizabeth, not just the list, but the explanations, too! I like to look at old gravestones and memorials for interesting names from the Georgian period. Names for heroes can be difficult, though, can't they? Not only do they need right for the period, they have to be right for the man.

Jan Jones said...

This is brilliant, Elizabeth. I knew about biblical names tending to be used by the lower orders, but I'm really surprised at Joseph being in the top ten. Not sure why, just surprising.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I agree with you, Sarah, about the fascination of old tombstones. I came across an Isabella who was 'killed by a tiger fierce' on a tombstone in Malmesbury, of all places.

I know what you mean about Joseph, Jan. There just do not seem to be many 18th-19th century Josephs around: Joseph Arch, Joseph Priestley and that's about it. No, I've just thought of Joseph Severn who was with Keats when he died. Still, compared with all the Williams, Thomases and Johns, they are a bit thin on the ground.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you for the post, Elizabeth. I find research like this so interesting. Sarah is right - a name not only has to feel right for the period but also for the character. I like a lot of these names; they have a wonderfully enduring quality and their popularity through time proves this.

I named the hero of my most recent book Owen. In my research book on the history of names it first crops up as a popular name in the 17th century. Like you I'm curious how it attained such popularity! I'm always fascinated when names crop up that I wouldn't have thought would be so well known at the time.

Lousie Allen said...

This really is fascinating! I'm doing some family history at the moment and the uniformity of comon names makes life difficult! Finding someone called Ash was a great relief!

Jellyfishfairy said...

Wow. Those are all really cool names. I am writing a book with a friend, and I realized that all of our male names made this list! :)

I guess we just like names from the 1800s!

Marvin Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marvin Lee said...

All names are cool. I love them all. Infact some people have these names now too. I am also looking for
traditional english boys names instead of latest name for my friend's baby boy and it helped me to get one. Thank you for sharing.