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Thread: Female Names in the Upper New River Valley 1700-1850 -- An Appalachian Onomasticon

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    Post Female Names in the Upper New River Valley 1700-1850 -- An Appalachian Onomasticon

    Quote Originally Posted by Rebecca Moon


    "Modern" English, according to the scholars, emerged around the time of Shakespeare, in the 16th century. However, this is based on grammatical and other linguistic features, not necessarily the ease with which a modern English speaker can read Hamlet.

    By the Middle Ages, the people of England were separated by many centuries from their roving, tribal ancestors. They no longer had much interest in naming their little girls "strong spear," much less "wild boar." Instead, most girls received the name of a queen, saint, or Biblical figure, such as Elizabeth, Joan, Margaret, Anne, Alice, Agnes, Mary, Jane, Katherine, Dorothy, Eleanor, and Susan. Though a wide variety of Anglo-Saxon names were still in use, they were becoming increasingly rare.

    In general, people in the Middle Ages were very conservative when it came to choosing names for their children. The majority of the population shared the same, relatively small handful of names. They did, however, invent a huge number of nicknames for the most common names, like Mary and Elizabeth. Some of these nicknames are still in use today (e.g., Molly, Polly, Eliza, Beth, Bess), while others seemm downright strange (e.g., Molot, Pollekin, Elisota).

    From the 16th to the 18th centuries, which is known as the "Classical Revival" period in English literature, the English took to new, exotic names the way American parents took to "Brittany" and "Caitlin" in 1990's. A flurry of new names entered the language during the Classical Revival period, such as Belinda, Diana, Malvina, Parthenia, and Sophronia. Some of these names came from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. Some were contemporary Italian names, and others were invented outright. Shakespeare is perhaps the best known writer to coin new names and to borrow freely from classical sources, but he was not the first, or the last, to do so. Even some Anglo-Saxon names were revived during this period as a result of interest in ancient legends.

    With one important exception -- the Puritans -- the English colonists in America used the same sorts of names that were common in England during the 1600's and 1700's: a mixture of the traditional (which favored names of saints and royalty), and the innovative (largely inspired by popular literature). The Puritans, however, eschewed both tradition and fashion. The Puritans adhered to a strict religious philosophy that required them to lead a purely Christian life. Certainly no self-respecting Puritan would name his daughter after a pagan goddess, or, for that matter, a corrupt aristocrat. Puritan children received the sturdy names of Biblical characters, abstract virtues, and even Christian slogans.

    Fortunately, the Puritans' most burdensome names, like "Fly-Fornication," rather quickly died out. But others remained popular for generations. American women with names like Biddy (Obedience), Huldah, Dorcas, and Drusilla could thank their Puritan ancestors for the favor. Some Biblical names that were adopted by the Puritans have remained American standards to this day. It surprises many Americans to learn that Ruth, Rebecca, Martha, and other common American names are fairly unusual in England.


    German immigrants were probably responsible for several unusual names found in the American South, including Elzina, Jincy (Jensine) and Almedia (Almetta). These names were used in Germany, but not in England or Scotland, as far as I have been able to determine. Similarly, the Scotch-Irish may have brought the name Mazy (Maisie), which is a Scottish nickname for Margaret. (However, it is also possible that "Mazy" was a nickname for "Mary Elizabeth.")

    Unfortunately, the Scotch-Irish and German settlers used many of the same names as the English ("Elizabeth" is a good example), and subtle differences in spelling and pronunciation quickly disappeared. As a result, it is difficult to say how much these two ethnic groups influenced American naming patterns. This is particularly true in places like the Upper New River Valley of North Carolina, where the English, Germans, and Scotch-Irish intermarried and were completely mixed within a couple of generations.

    The Appalachian dialect in general is said to have many Scotch-Irish features, but that is beyond the scope of my research. (See, e.g., Alan Crozier, "The Scotch-Irish Influence on American English," American Speech 59 [1984]: 310-31; Wylene Dial, "The Dialect of the Appalachian People," West Virginia History 30 [1969]: 463-71.)

    Incidentally, the Scotch-Irish were mostly English-speaking Scots from lowland (southern) Scotland who moved to northern Ireland in the early 1600's to escape religious persecution. Unlike the Highland Scots and native Irish, the Scotch-Irish used few, if any, given names of Celtic origin.


    Some unusual names may be the result of the inhabitants' Southern accents. Even today, people in certain parts of the country put an "R" in the middle of words like "wash" ("warsh"). This habit may explain names like Ferby (Phoebe), Artelia (Adelia), Permelia (Pamela), and Perlina (Paulina).

    Southerners are also famous for inventing names. This custom did not really take off until the late 19th century, but there are earlier examples. Female names were often coined by combining syllables from other names, or taking a syllable from one name and adding a feminine suffix such as -ella, -etta, -ina, or -inda.


    There are a handful of names in the Upper New River Valley that are difficult to explain. These curious names are often associated with the "Melungeons," an Appalachian ethnic group that is believed to descend from Native Americans who intermarried with sailors from the Spanish and Portuguese voyages of exploration. (For more information, visit The Melungeon Heritage Association). A word of caution, however: many Latinate names are perfectly common English or German names that have been around for hundreds of years (e.g., Felicia, Cecilia). Other "exotic" names actually come from the Bible (Mahala, Kezzia) or have literary roots (Elvira, Fatima, Safronia). It is also possible that an unusual name is a fanciful nickame or an outright invention.

    Visit this excellent resource here for a more in-depth examination of the origins and variations of, along with the nicknames associated with, the following:

    ENGLISH NAMES FROM THE MIDDLE AGES AND EARLIER (may have Germanic, Latin, Norman, or early Christian origins): Agnes, Adele, Adeline, Alice, Ann/Anne/Anna, Annabel, Annice, Arabella, Barbara, Bertha, Camilla, Cassandra, Catherine, Cecilia, Cecily, Christina, Clare, Clarice, Clementia, Dorothea, Edith, Eleanor, Elizabeth, Ella, Ellen, Emma, Emmeline, Emily, Estrilda, Eulalia, Euphemia, Felicia, Flora, Gertrude, Grace, Griselda, Helen, Hilda, Isabel, Jane, Janet/Janetta, Jenny, Joanna, Johanna, Joyce, Julia/Julian/Jillian, Katherine, Lavinia, Leanna, Leonora, Lettice, Letitia, Lillian, Lora, Loretta, Lucy, Mahald, Margaret, Marina, Mary, Matilda, Mildred, Mirabel, Nancy, Oliva, Paulina, Rosa/Rose, Rosalind, Rosamond, Sarah, Sidony, Tamsin, Thomasina, Valerie, Winifred.

    ENGLISH QUEENS: Anne, Catherine, Charlotte, Eleanor, Elizabeth, Isabella, Jane, Mary.

    BIBLICAL: Abi, Abiah, Abigail, Alva, Asenath, Barzilla, Beersheba, Bethabara, Bethany, Beulah, Candice, Chloe, Deborah, Delilah, Dinah, Dorcas, Drusilla, Elizabeth, Esther, Eunice, Eve, Hannah, Huldah, Jemima, Jeriah, Johanna, Julia, Keturah, Keziah, Leah, Lois, Lydia, Mahala, Martha, Mary, Mehetable, Michal, Miriam, Naomi, Ophrah, Orpha, Penninah, Phoebe, Priscilla, Rachel, Rebecca/Rebekah, Rhoda, Ruhamah, Ruth, Sarah, Susannah, Tabitha, Tamar, Tirzah, Zemira, Zibiah, Zillah, Zilpah, Zipporah.

    VIRTUES: Alethea ("truth"), Charity, Chastity, Comfort, Constance, Delight, Dorothea ("God's gift"), Faith, Grace, Honor, Hope, Joy, Joyce, Obedience, Patience, Providence, Prudence, Tace ("be silent"), Temperance, Theodocia ("God's gift"), Verity ("truth"), Waitstill.

    LITERARY & CLASSICAL REVIVAL (mainly 16th-18th centuries): Albina, Althea, Almira, Amanda, Amaryllis, Amelia, Angeline, Amynta, Artemesia, Aurelia, Belinda, Bithiah, Caledonia, Camilla, Celia, Cinderella, Clarinda, Clarissa, Clementina, Cora, Cordelia, Corinna, Cynthia, Delia, Delicia, Diana, Dorinda, Elvira, Esmerelda, Estrilda/Estrildis, Eurydice, Fatima, Fidelia, Frances, Harriet, Irena, Laura, Louisa/Louise, Lucinda, Lucretia, Malvina, Melissa, Melinda, Minerva, Miranda, Myra, Octavia, Olivia, Ophelia, Palmyra, Pamela, Parthenia, Penelope, Sabrina, Safronia, Selima, Selina, Selinda, Sophia, Sylvania, Sylvia, Tranquilla, Vesta.

    GERMAN: Adele, Adelaide, Almetta, Analiese, Bertha, Elsa, Elsina/Elzina, Jensine, Johanna, Marlena, Rosina, Seraphina, Serena, Serilda.* Other 18th-century German names (gleaned from Pennsylvania German Church Records, Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983): Albertina, Anna, Appollonia, Barbara, Catharina, Christina, Cunigunda, Dorothea, Elisabetha, Elisa, Eva, Frederica, Gertraud, Hannah, Helena, Juditha, Juiliana, Licetta, Magdalena, Marcreta, Margaretha, Maria, Sara, Sophia, Susanna, Theresa, Wilhelmina.*

    SCOTTISH: Maise (Mazy?)

    POSSIBLY "MELUNGEON" (Portuguese, Arabic, Native American - alternative explanations noted): Fatima (probably a literary import), Mahala (probably Biblical), Pheraby/Feraby/Fariba (may be a variation of "Phoebe"), Selima (probably a literary import), Semira (may be related to Biblical "Zemira"), Saluda, Sedilia, Wady (may be related to Puritan "Waitstill").

    PLACES: America, Carolina, Columbia, Fredonia, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Philadelphia, Virginia.

    FLOWERS & PLANTS: Amarilla (Amaryllis), Flora, Lily, Narcissa, Olive, Rose, Violet.

    OTHER 18TH-19TH CENTURY IMPORTS: Eugenie (French), Josephine (French), Belvadere (Italian), Lorena (Italian), Buena Vista (Spanish).

    AMERICAN INVENTIONS: Araminta, Arlena, Artelia, Cena/Cenia, Dorthula, Dovey, Fredonia, Jincey/Gincey, Lagenia, Ludelia, Ludema, Ludicia, Luticia, Luella, Luvena, Marticia, Mathursa, Orlena, Perlina, Permelia, Pheraby/Feraby, Plutina, Rosinda, Saletta, Sena/Senia, Thursey, Verlitia.
    Last edited by Appalachian; Wednesday, January 26th, 2005 at 06:43 AM.

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