Oxford Dictionary of First Names by Hanks and Hodges
First up is the Oxford Dictionary of First Names by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges. My copy dates from 2003. It covers a much wider range of names than E.G. Withycombe’s Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names. For a start, the names included are not necessarily either English or Christian. It covers British (including Celtic) and European names; those of Canada, Australia and New Zealand; American names, Black names, and has special sections on Arab names and those from the Indian sub-continent.
‘Daisy’: A popular Victorian name brooch
For example, take the name Stephen. It gives the name’s history: ‘the first Christian martyr (Acts 6-7)’, the date, and what the name means: it comes from the Greek stephanos, which means a garland or crown. It then gives you the name in eleven foreign languages from French: Etienne or Stéphane; to Italian: Stephano; to Spanish: Esteban; and Hungarian: István. Really useful, if you want to introduce a sexy French nobleman escaping from Revolutionary Paris, or a Portuguese guerrilla harrying Napoleon’s retreating army in the Peninsular War.
Everyman’s Dictionary of First Names by Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling
My next book is Everyman’s Dictionary of First Names by Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling, published by Book Club associates in 1983. Leslie Dunkling founded The Names Society in 1969 and published a number of books about the origins of first names in the English-speaking world. He has plainly done some serious research and corrected some of E G. Withycombe’s conclusions, for example: ‘Miss Withycombe makes the rather extraordinary statement that Maxine is ‘a favourite modern French girl’s name’. In fact, the name will not be found in any French name dictionary, and French people consider it to be an English name.’
The Guinness Book of Names by Leslie Dunkling
Leslie Dunkling also wrote First Names First and The Guinness Book of Names, both of which are well worth snapping up. The latter has tables of the top 50 first names of both sexes from 1838 (when the legal registration of births came in), 1850, 1875, 1900, 1925,1950 and 1971.)
Maxi Prénoms by Florence le Bras
Lastly, a French book of names called Maxi Prénoms by Florence le Bras published by Marabout in 2000 which I bought in Canada. It’s a fun book to browse through but I have to say that its etymological accuracy can be dubious. Take Cordélia. Le Bras says it’s from ‘de Delya’, that is the Greek island of Delos, which seems fanciful, to say the least. Withycombe and Dunkling agree that it’s probably a variation of Cordula, one of the companions of St Ursula.
I take the names I use in my books very seriously - as I know you all do. I try and make sure that they are not anachronistic. All the same, I still hanker after heroes with exotic names!