Given Names and Family Names

‘That which we call a rose,’ says Juliet, ‘By any other name would smell as sweet’. So, what’s in a name? The answer is: ‘A great deal.’ ‘A rose’, says the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘is a woody perennial flowering plant.’  But that’s not what we have in mind when we call a daughter Rose.

Both given names and family names are gendered though they are gendered in different ways. Given names tell us what people expect of a baby. Family names tell us about an ancestor. Andrew calls for the baby to grow up strong. Bella calls for the baby to grow up beautiful. Baker tells us what an ancestor did for a living: he was a baker. Long tells us what an ancestor looked like: he was tall.

Given names commonly express hopes. Family names commonly tell stories. It is often the case that we do not know the story nor the hope. Do we know the hope wished by the name Jessica?  Do we know the story told by the name Estcourt? But whether or not we know the meaning of the names, the stories told and the hopes wished create a linguistic force field that dictates attitudes. Patriarchs say: ‘Does it matter? Is it important? Names are just names.’ And patriarchs are right in their light. Once questions are asked, potency is reduced.

The wish that Jessica expresses is that the baby will have foresight, even that she might have vision. It is a Biblical name. Since Oxford’s Dictionary of English Surnames says so, we can believe that Jessica made its first appearance as the name of the daughter of Shylock. Jessicas do not begin to appear in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography until the nineteenth century, but from then onwards learned parents have named their daughters after Shakespeare’s heroines. Jessica, Imogen, Cordelia, Ophelia, and Miranda are names with a certain cachet.

The story that Estcourt tells is of a family that originated in Cornwall, for, if we are to believe a website, it is a French name that was current in Britain even before the flood of French names that came with the Normans. More certainly, because Oxford says so, we can believe that Estcourt means ‘the dweller at the eastern cottage’, a meaning evident in spellings of the name as Eastcott and Escott.

Ancestry’s webpage ‘What Does Your Last Name Say About You?’ tells us that there are some 45,000 English family names. They mostly fall into seven categories: occupational, characteristical, habitational, proprietorial, geographical, ancestral and possessional. Possessional names, such as Edwards and Williams, indicate that a holder of those names was once owned by a man named Edward or William. Edwards and Williams are names of men. In fact, almost all the names in Ancestry’s seven categories are those of men. They are patronyms, names based on the father.

Although women play their part in family making, there are few matronyms, names based on the mother. Babbs may have a place-name origin, but it may also be a name derived from a pet-name for Barbara. Custer may derive from the name Custance, modern Constance, a woman’s name reflecting her faithfulness or the wish for her faithfulness. Emmott, a pet-name for Emma, provided the family name for the son of an Emma. Hillary, as a family name, has more than one root, but one form derives from Eulalia, ‘sweet-tongued’, a woman’s name. Ibbetson could have been the son of Ibb, a pet-name for Isabel, though he could also have been the son of Hibot, a Frenchman.

Madison was once the son of Maud, by way of her pet-name Maddy though Mr Madison might also have been the son of a man called Mathew. Marriott, Marrit, Marryat and Molson were sons of women called Mary. The first Parnells were sons of women called Petronilla, a feminine pet-name derived from Peter. Why do these names break the convention that family names are based on the father? One answer is that not every man knew who his father was.

Ancestry’s House of Names website likes to give the benefit of the doubt to the female origin of family names where it can do so. Oxford’s Dictionary of English Surnames likes to suggest otherwise or provide alternative derivations and only occasionally to confirm that the family name is definitely derived from a woman’s name. Oxford is probably right, but anthroponymy - the study of names - is a tricky science and its etymologies do not yet have the assurance of those for the common nouns to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Sources of ambiguity with family name arise not only from the convergences caused by the fact that a family name can have more than one origin. Ambiguity also arises from orthography since a family name can be spelled in different ways. That used to be true of our common nouns; they appeared in various spellings until the regularising eighteenth century led to our dictionary makers settling on one spelling only for every word – not every word, judgement can still be spelled judgment. Place names were regularised in the nineteenth-century when the British and American Post Offices needed to fix things. But families refused to go along with that kind of fixing. Families are proud of their names and proud of their spellings, but it was not always the case that families had family names.

Kings and queens and lords and ladies have always had strings of names, but peasants did not, not at least till the fourteenth century. It was then that the English Treasury looked for a way of collecting taxes that would supplement the traditional property taxes. The poll tax was devised, a tax levied on every poll or head in the kingdom. Poll taxes have not been popular. The poll tax of 1381 led to the Peasants’ Revolt and the poll tax of 1987 led to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. The Biblical instruction that ‘the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less’ did not go down well with the populace of either century.

In 1381 as opposed to 1987, the heads that were to be counted were those of men, not those of women. Women were not to be counted; women did not count. A strong gendering of family names was about to be perpetrated.

A starting point for making sure that every man paid his poll tax was to have a way of identifying every man. With all the men of England sharing a very few names - William, Henry, Richard and John, all royal names, being especially popular - men had to answer questions of the kind: ‘Which William are you?’ Already, the popular names for boys had produced a variety of nicknames. For the Williams, there were Willie, Willy, Will, Bill, Billie, and Billy. The same was true for the popular names for girls. For the Matildas (a royal name), there were Maud, Malt, Mold, Till, Tilly, Tillet, and Tillott. But pet-names were not sufficient for the purposes of the poll tax.

When the tax collectors came round, what Willy, Will, Bill and Billy needed was what the Saxons had called an eke-name, an additional name. An eke-name came to be called a nekename and so a nickname.  What the villagers called a nickname was what the Francophone tax collectors called a surnom. The English began to call their eke-names their surnames.  Today we call them family names.

Different cultures have different practices, but family names have regularly been patronymic. The bias in so many cultures led the United Nations to address the issue in 1979. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women grants women the same naming rights as men. The United States has yet to ratify this convention although American women are leaders in self-naming in the English-speaking world.

The gender bias of family names is towards the male, towards the father. The gender bias of given names is different. Reflected in the traditional names for boys and girls are two sets of values. Girls are meant to be good and boys are meant to be bold. Faith, Hope and Charity are girls. So are Constance, Grace and Mercy. Harold, Henry and Hubert are boys. So are Conrad, Geoffrey, and Mark. Harold means Army Commander.  Henry means Household Ruler. Hubert means Shining Intellect. Conrad, Geoffrey, and Mark mean Bold Counsel, Traveller, and Warlike.

There is one respect in which girls’ names top boys’ names and that is that there are more girls’ names than boys’ names. In 2016, according to Time, the American federal government recorded 18,993 girls’ names but only 13,959 boys’ names. The reason for that discrepancy, Time speculates, is that parents are more inventive when it comes to naming girls. One direction in which such inventiveness has led is the adoption of names that are gender neutral.

‘Baby names that work for boys and girls’, an American webpage, lists 120 names from Addison through Jordan to Winter. It takes a positive view of the practice: ‘utterly charming’. It is likely that one of its names, Frances, would not be seen as gender neutral outside the United States. ‘Leslie, Kerry, Kim, Vivian, Tracy’, a British webpage, lists names that occupy ‘the twilight zone between boy’s names and girl’s names.’ It takes a negative view of the practice: ‘What were the parents thinking?’ Gender-neutral names are mostly boys’ names that have been adopted for girls. Boys named Sue are rare, but there have been 519 American boys so named since 1880.

A reluctance to give girls’ names to boys may arise in part from what Time says is a greater tendency to name boys after male relatives than girls after female relatives. Do parents get cautious and conservative when naming sons? Is naming a boy a more serious business than naming a girl?

Naming a royal baby is among the most serious of businesses in the United Kingdom, and William and Kate have chosen to call their newest born: Louis Arthur Charles. With his title, he becomes Prince Louis Arthur Charles. That name etymologises as First-Taker Battle-Famous Resolute-Protector Freeman. Prince Louis’s sister is Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. Her name etymologized becomes First-Taker-Woman Free-Girl Oath-of-God Divine-Hunter-Woman. Charlotte is a diminutive of Charles. It became popular in the eighteenth century because it was the name of George III’s queen. Oxford says that it is now especially popular in England and Australia.

Henry means Household Ruler. Meghan means Pearl. A Windsor is someone whose ancestors owned a castle. A Markle is someone whose ancestors came from the edge of a woodland clearing. When a Harry Windsor marries a Meghan Markle, we can only wish them the very best in life and in baby naming.



Ancestry. ‘What Does Your Last Name Say About You?’ Ancestry:

Baby Center. ‘Baby names that work for boys and girls.’ Baby Center:, 2018.

BBC News. ‘Leslie, Kerry, Kim, Vivian, Tracy.’ BBC:, 2005.

Fenwick, Carolyn. The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379, and 1381. Oxford: Oxford University Press/British Academy, 1999.

Hanks, Patrick, ed. Dictionary of American Family Names. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Hanks, Patrick, Kate Hardcastle, and Flavia Hodges. A Dictionary of First Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 

House of Names. ‘Estcourt.’ House of Names:

Nolte, Brian. ‘519 Boys Named “Sue”.’ Between the Numbers:, 2013.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press:

Reaney, Percy H. and R. M. Wilson. A Dictionary of English Surnames. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

UN Women. ‘The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.’ United Nations:, 1979.

Wilson, Chris. ‘Why There Are So Many More Names for Baby Girls.’ Time (10 May 2016):


For the full bibliography for Women and the English Language, please go to the English Project Website at

For a ‘Word of the Week’ on our 2018 theme of Women and the English Language visit:


The English Project’s June Posting: The ‘Mother’ Tongue. The English language has a male tilt, but we call it our mother tongue not our father tongue. Why is that? Babies babble. We respond in what linguists used to call Motherese. What was that? Should it be called Parentese or even caretaker speech today?