What’s in a Name?

Every name is a piece of history. This is true for names of big things, like towns or countries, but it’s also true for personal names. As much as it might feel like it, the name your parents gave you wasn’t pulled from thin air. It’s not just a random string of consonants and vowels. Chances are, your name is the result of centuries of langue and culture.

Let’s take a look of some names.

Let’s start with a really straight forward name. My name is Heather. I was named after a flower. Heather has been called heather in English for as long as modern English has existed. In Middle English (an older form of English spoken until the 1500’s) it was called ‘hather’. Not too different. (Fun fact! If your name is Erica/Erika, you have the same name as me! Erica is the Latin name for the flower heather.)

Now for a slightly more complicated name. My best friend’s name is Emily. Emily is the female version of the male name Emil, which is commonly found in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Emil comes from the Roman last name Aemilius. Aemilius come from the Latin word ‘aemulus’, meaning ‘rival’, reshaped slightly to make it into a name.

Wow! So that means that the word ‘aemulus’ traveled through at least three different cultures over the course of two-thousand years to become the name common English name ‘Emily’.  Who knew?

And ‘Emily’ is not the only name to have its roots in the ancient word ‘aemulus’. Emil, Emilia, and Emilio all follow the same linguistic tree. But strangely enough, Amelia and Emma do not. They come from a completely different tree with a completely different historical background.

Today’s Activity

Now its your turn. Follow the link https://www.behindthename.com/. This will bring you to a fantastic website called Behind the Name.  If you type a name into the search bar on this site, it will tell you a little about that name. Often, the information you’re given will have a blue underlined name in the description, telling you that the name you typed in used to be that blue name at some point in history. Click that blue name, and it will bring you to that name’s description. Chances are, there will be another blue, underlined name in that explanation too. Follow the blue, underlined names until there are no more to get the full history of a name.

With this website, I invite you to:

  1. Look up your own name
  2. Look up a family member’s name
  3. Look up your best friend’s name
  4. Find someone in history with the same first name as you
  5. Ask your caregiver why you were named what you are

As you look up these names, keep track of how many times they change and how many cultures they go through. Some names, like mine, are very simple and might only have one page. But others can have ten or more different versions to look through until you find out where that name began.

Greenwich Historical Society will be closed Saturday, 3/14 until further notice. 

All public programs and tours are cancelled. Our office will remain open to staff and scheduled visitors. We will be monitoring developments of this situation closely and taking precautions wherever possible. 

Stay healthy and safe!