aristocratic surnames, aristocratic titles, Arthurian legends, Biblical names, British names, celebrity baby names, Celtic names, classic names, english names, famous namesakes, fictional namesakes, French names, Gaulish names, germanic names, hebrew names, Idylls of the King, King Arthur, Latin names, locational names, Lord Tennyson, name history, name meaning, name popularity, names from movies, nicknames, Norman-French names, Old Norse names, papal names, Roman names, royal names, saints names, Scottish names, surname names, unisex names, Welsh names
Arthur‘s fame comes from the legendary King Arthur, a British hero of the Dark Ages who became much celebrated in medieval romances. The meaning of the name isn’t known; some popular theories derive it from the British for “bear king” or, less convincingly, the Welsh for “bear man”. Another theory is that it is from the Roman surname Artorius, which would make King Arthur a Romanised Briton; this does fit in with some of the earliest versions of the tales. Unfortunately, it isn’t known what Artorius means, so leaves us no wiser. It’s a name we often think of as Victorian, as the 19th century was so keen on reviving medieval names, and Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King made the Arthurian legends popular once more. Queen Victoria’s favourite son was named Arthur, and Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and detective writer Arthur Conan Doyle were two other famous Victorian namesakes. Arthur was #6 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1910s at #5. It didn’t leave the Top 100 until the 1960s, and reached its lowest point in the early 2000s at #334. Since then it has been rising gently, and is currently #216. Handsome and noble, this is a classic which isn’t overused and the nickname Artie is a good alternative to popular Archie.
Clarence seems to have started out as a girl’s name, presumably an elaboration of Clare or variant of Clarice. In the 19th century, although given to both sexes, it was much more common as a boy’s name, due to Queen Victoria’s son Leopold, the Earl of Clarence. The title is said to originate from the town of Clare in Suffolk, owned by the first Duke of Clarence, Lionel of Antwerp, in the 14th century. The town’s name was originally Clara, from Roman times – this was either from the Latin for “clear” because of the Chilton Stream which flows through the town, or a Latinisation of a Celtic word, but scholars seem to currently lean towards the first explanation. Clarence was #30 in the 1900s, #42 in the 1910s , and left the Top 100 in the 1940s. It hasn’t charted since the 1960s. Famous as the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, this might seem like an “old person name”, but actor Clarence Ryan, who has starred in kid’s TV shows Lockie Leonard and Dead Gorgeous, gives us a chance to see the name on a young man. The classic nickname is Clarry, but Ren would be neat.
Ernest is a Germanic name meaning “vigour, strife”, only very distantly related to the English word earnest. It was a name used by German royalty and nobility, and introduced to England in the 18th century when the Hanoverians inherited the British throne. Famous men named Ernest include New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford, British explorer Ernest Shackleton, American author Ernest Hemingway and Australian TV host Ernest “Ernie” Sigley. The name also reminds us of Ernest Worthing, from the Oscar Wilde play, The Importance of Being Earnest. Ernest was #16 in the 1900s, #17 in the 1910s, and left the Top 100 in the 1950s. It hasn’t charted since the 1970s. Ernest seems like one of those granddad names that could easily be used again; it’s strong and appealing, almost sounds like a virtue name, and Ernie makes a cute nickname. In a recent poll on the blog, Ernest was voted the male name from the 1900s that people most wanted to be revived.
Horace is the name by which the Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus is known in English. He was a member of the Horatii, an ancient noble family of Rome. The family name Horatius is said to go back to a legendary hero named Horatus; the meaning of his name is unknown. The poet Horace used to make puns on his own name and its similarity to the Latin hora, meaning “hour”, and from this exhorting to “seize the day” and make the most of time. The elegant and witty poetry of Horace was a great influence on English literature from the Middle Ages onwards, but to modern eyes his love poetry appears brutally unromantic (he seized the day with an awful lot of people). The name Horace was #45 in the 1900s, #57 in the 1910s, and had left the Top 100 by the 1930s. It hasn’t charted since the 1940s. Unfortunately for the name, Horace always seems to be used for comic characters in fiction, often overweight ones, such as barrister Horace Rumpole of the Bailey and Horace Slughorn from Harry Potter. Indeed, the Roman poet himself was short and rotund, giving this name a portly sound. However, it also seems sturdy and reliable – and you could use Ace as a contemporary nickname.
Joseph is a form of the Hebrew name Yosef. In the Old Testament, Joseph was the son of Jacob and his favourite wife Rachel. The meaning of the name appears to be “Yahweh shall add (a son)”, but the Bible makes a pun about Joseph also “taking away” his mother’s shame of being barren – a little mathematical joke. Jacob spoiled Joseph terribly, gave him some fancy duds, and his jealous brothers sold him into slavery after he unwisely shared a dream he had about being way better than them. Through a series of adventures where his dream skills were more appreciated, he became the most powerful man in Egypt after the Pharaoh, and was reunited with his family, who he received with love and forgiveness. In the New Testament, Joseph was the husband of Mary, and the earthly father of Jesus; he is regarded as a saint. Joseph was #17 in the 1900s, and #23 in the 1910s. A sturdy classic which has never left the Top 100, the lowest it’s ever been is #68 during the 1940s. Currently it is #52 in New South Wales. Although last year it fell somewhat, Joseph is an extremely safe choice with Joe as the standard and popular nickname.
Laurence is the English form of the Roman surname Laurentius, meaning “from Laurentum”. Laurentum was an ancient city near Rome whose name may mean “laurel tree”. The Romans wore laurel wreaths to symbolise victory, so it’s a very positive meaning. (In France, Laurence is the feminine form of Laurentius). Laurence became well known because of Saint Lawrence, a 3rd century martyr put to death for not handing over the church’s money to the Emperor. According to legend, he was roasted on a gridiron, cheekily saying, “I’m done – turn me over!”. He is one of the most popular saints, and widely venerated. Laurence was #87 in the 1900s and #72 in the 1910s; it peaked in the 1920s at #62, and didn’t leave the Top 100 until the 1960s. Laurence hasn’t charted in New South Wales since 2009, but in Victoria it is #494. This name is sleek and handsome, but presently much more popular in the middle than up front.
Maxwell is a Scottish surname which comes from a place named Maccus Well or Maxwell on the Scottish Borders. The name came about when a Norman lord named Maccus obtained land on the River Tweed, with a salmon pool soon known as Maccus’ Wiel – Maccus’ pool. Maccus is from the Old Norse name Makkr, a form of Magnus, meaning “great”. A grandson of Maccus became chamberlain of Scotland, and through him many branches of the family grew through south-west Scotland. Clan Maxwell was a very powerful Lowland clan who operated as one of the great noble houses of Scotland, holding titles of high esteem. Maxwell has been used as a first name since the 17th century, and in Scotland was sometimes given to girls. Entertainer Jessica Simpson raised eyebrows when she named her daughter Maxwell last year. Maxwell was #118 in the 1900s and #79 in the 1910s. It peaked at #29 in the 1930s, and left the Top 100 in the 1960s. Maxwell hit its lowest point in the 1970s and ’80s, when it plateaued at #318. After that it climbed, and was just outside the Top 100 when it fell to #139 in 2011. The retro nickname Max makes this a very attractive choice.
Percy is an aristocratic surname used as a first name. William de Percy was a Norman who arrived in England in 1067; he may have lived in England before the Conquest, but been expelled and returned when it was safe. He was granted large tracts of land, and it is from him that the House of Percy descends. The Percys were the most powerful noble family in the north of England during the Middle Ages, and rivals to the Nevilles. Various Percys did all the usual noble things – signed the Magna Carta, took leading roles in wars and battles, governed Virginia. George Percy, Earl Percy, the current heir to the Dukedom of Northumbria, was Pippa Middleton’s housemate, and is close friends with her. The name Percy comes from the manor of Perci-en-Auge in Normandy; it’s derived from the Roman personal name Persius, of unknown meaning, and may be a Latinisation of a Gaulish name. Percy was #41 in the 1900s, #48 in the 1910s and had left the Top 100 by the 1930s. It hasn’t charted since the 1940s. Because Percy can be used as a nickname for Percival or Perseus, it fits in well with the trend for old-fashioned nicknames like Ned or Ollie.
Ronald is a Scottish form of Ragnvaldr or Rognvaldr, an Old Norse name meaning something like “well-advised ruler, decisive ruler”. The Gaelic form of the name is Ragnall, and this was Anglicised as either Ranald or Ronald (the Latinised form is Reginald). The Norse name was introduced to Scotland by settlers from Scandinavia, and there were several powerful Norse rulers of northern England and Scotland named Ragnall. Ronald was #34 in the 1900s, #10 in the 1910s, and peaked in the 1920s at #3. It didn’t leave the Top 100 until the 1970s, and only stopped charting in the late 2000s. There are two likeable fictional sidekicks which remind me of this this name – Ron Weasley, red-headed best mate of wizard Harry Potter, and Ron Stoppable, bestie of crime fighter Kim Possible. Both are played for laughs, yet are brave, loyal, and manage to get the girl. I have seen a few babies in birth notices called Ron or Ronnie, but so far I haven’t seen a full-blown Ronald. I suspect the familiar hamburger clown Ronald McDonald might hamper it – the name Ronald took a definite dive after McDonalds became established in Australia.
Victor is a Roman name meaning “victor” in Latin, which is easy enough to understand. It was a very popular name amongst early Christians, symbolising victory over sin and death. There are several saints named Victor, and three popes with the name – Saint Pope Victor I was the first African pope. Victor was commonly used as a name amongst Continental European nobility and royalty, and in the 19th century received a boost in England due to Queen Victoria. There are quite a few Victors in fiction, but the most widely-known often has his first name forgotten – Victor Frankenstein, the young Swiss scientist who brings a nameless creature to life. Writer Mary Shelley based Frankenstein on her husband Percy Shelley, who used Victor as a pen name and had been a keen science student while at university. Victor was #31 in the 1900s and #38 in the 1910s. It left the Top 100 in the 1960s, and reached its lowest point in the charts in 2009, when it dipped to #478. Currently it is #333. This is a strong, honest-sounding classic which seems rather hip.
POLL RESULT: People’s favourite names were Arthur, Joseph, and Maxwell, and their least favourite were Clarence, Ronald, and Horace.
(The photo shows Australian soldiers in the trenches at Bois-Grenier near Armentières on the Western Front, 1916. Image held by the Australian War Memorial)