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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Names that became undesirable in the late middle ages.

Nowadays Roger has certain overtones; and in America, John might feel he was being made a convenience of, but the use of proper names to indicate other things is nothing new.

The feminine form of the name ‘John’, variously expressed in the Middle Ages as ‘Jehanne, Jeanne, Johanna, Joan and Jane’ was by the later centuries most commonly ‘Joan’.  So common indeed that ‘Jumping Joan’ was an euphemism for a prostitute or a girl of lax morals.  With the sixteenth century therefore the variant Jane became more prevalent. 

Another feminine form, that of ‘Peter’, was formally ‘Petronilla’; one of the pet forms was ‘Pernel’.  By 1500 this was beginning to be used as a nickname for the mistress of a priest.  This being so, those of surname Pernell or Parnell might be descended from a woman of that name…..or from a priest with a mistress.

‘Julian’, used for male and female alike, often became ‘Jillian’ and thence ‘Jill’ in the female form, this being the middle English pronunciation of it; and became synonymous with a frivolous girl likely to play the field with her swains; hence the term ‘jilt’ was born. By the 1670’s it had overtones of harlotry….

One of the pet names of ‘Mary’, via the common change of r to l, was ‘Malkin’, but ‘Grimalkin’ [Grey Mary] became a name associated with cats and hence with witchcraft. The combined name gives a beginning that is Grim which doubtless added to the association of this cat name with witchcraft, as does the sound ‘mal’ meaning evil or ill doing in Old French and Latin.   The double diminutive to ‘Mally’ then ‘Malkin’ became safer if massaged into ‘Molly’.

The men did not get away scot free either.

‘Theobold’ was commonly rendered ‘Tybalt’, and in its short form, ‘Tyb’,  was another popular name for a cat, whence still we have the recognisably feline ‘Tibbles’.

A ‘Gibb’ cat was another name for a male or ‘Tom’, though ‘Gilbert’ and ‘Thomas’, the roots of each, do not seem to have suffered any opprobrium. 

Religion had a part to play as well

The name ‘Pagan’ was occasionally given through the Middle Ages, which custom died out when the religious fervour of the sixteenth century became more rabid.

With the Reformation, names associated with particularly Catholic festivals also tended to disappear; ‘Pascal’ [male or female] is rarely found in England though its variants are common in Catholic countries eg ‘Pasquale’; ‘Sidony/Sedonia’ [female] equally disappeared.  These are two of the Easter names; and though ‘Easter’ itself tended to disappear, it was replaced in some cases, for girls at least, with the similar sounding and Puritanically Old Testament ‘Esther’.  Sidony did come back into fashion but nowadays, as with so many female names with similar sounding counterparts is confused with Sidney, which has a different root being a corruption of ‘St Denis’ in its French pronunciation.
‘Noel’ [male or female] does not seem to have suffered in the same way, possibly because it was the heavy Catholic symbology of the Pascal Lamb and the Holy Winding Sheet [Sendon] to which the early Protestants objected. 

Equally, names like ‘Deodata’ [female], ‘Deodonata’ [female] ‘Deodatus’ [male] and ‘Deodonatus’/’Donatus’ [male], meaning in each case ‘given by God’ and ‘given to God’ became unpopular as being superstitious – and the practice of giving a child to the church as an oblate at an early age finally died out. 

With the arrival of Protestantism in force, the use of the name ‘Creature’ also disappeared as obsolete. Commonly in the Middle Ages, with the preached belief that a baby who died unbaptised would go to Hell, the name ‘Creature’ was picked for a sickly baby, if a name had not been decided upon, after which, if the poor brat lived, he or she was saddled with it. Without the belief that an unbaptised baby was doomed to perdition, so hasty a baptism was unnecessary.


  1. So a "creature" would be an as-yet unbaptized baby?? I ask because that is where I have encountered the Latin term in earlier sources, referring to babies born out of wedlock...very interesting!!

    Meanwhile, I very much enjoyed your rundown of the Jills and the Joans..and so I am wondering: when Shkespeare calls Juliet's pugnacious cousin Tybalt by that name, would his name have been an early tip-off to a sixteenth-century audience that this man was gonna be trouble??? I tend to associate "tip-off" names with restoration theatre, but is this something a discerning viewer/reader with one finger on a "Renaissance repository" would tag in Elizabethan drama character names, as well?


  2. Interesting thought, Clio, and I wouldn't say you're wrong at that. It hadn't [I have to say] occurred to me, but Shakespeare, plagiarist and hack though he could be, was dead smart. Tybalt is a bit feline IIRC..... at least he was the only time I saw it played [not a favourite of mine].
    Now I'm going to be going through the plays and analysing.....

  3. MY gut is that Tyballt is supposed to be a pain...this is the way I recall him being introduced to me when I read SHkespeare with my mom as a girl; and the way I always played it for my daughters...some things become directors "canon"...almost like fan fiction, eh?...when they show up in enough productions, like the way several movies of "Romeo and Juliet" have played the Montagues as more happily married than the Capulets..

    but if "what's in a name" turns out to be a message to the viewers about what they can expect from a character (Sir Toby Belch?) then it's almost like instructions to a director, being transmitted through the text, over lo these many centuries....yep I guess we will both start paying more attention to the names of characters....