History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

11 December 2006

Nothing pulls me out of a story more than historical inaccuracy, which is how I originaly formed a friendship with our own Kalen Hughes and became one of our little band of History Hoydens. Recently, I've noticed one aspect of historical accuracy that's often ignored -- the accuracy of a character's given name.

I've always been fascinated by the way societal trends affect the first names given to children. In our own era, it's easy to see how modern social trends affect first names:

2002: The name "Emma" increased in frequency dramatically in 2002. When a study was done, it was found that these mothers named their daughters Emma because they were influenced by the character on the TV show Friends who named her own daughter Emma in the 2001-2002 season finale.

1970: The name "Jennifer" was quite rare prior to 1970. What happened? A movie called Love Story. Jennifer has been in the top 10 names for girls in the USA since that time, enjoying several years as the number 1 name.

1960s: One TV show gets the credit for the surge in Jason, Joshua, Jeffrey, and Jeremy -- Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The show featured seven brothers, all with names beginning with the letter J, and young girls watching the show used the name of their favorite character when naming their own sons. Prior to this show, all four of these names were considered very rare in the USA. I believe the statistic was less than 20 occurrences of these names per year, nationwide. Now it seems that there are 20 occurrences per class.

What does this have to do with historical novels? I recently read a Regency where a secondary character had the name "Doreen." A quick Internet search will tell you that the name didn't exist until 1896, when a romance novelist named Edna Lyall invented the name for the title character of her book, Doreen: Story of a Singer. Probably as a direct result of the novel's popularity, the name was avidly used in the UK at the turn of the century, reaching the top 10 names for girls in 1920. It's fallen into disfavor since, and was never used widely in the US. But in the Regency era, the name simply didn't exist.

Same for Wendy, which sounds obviously anachronistic to me, but I've seen it in at least two Regency novels (once as the name of a servant and once for a small child). "Wendy" was famously invented by J. M. Barrie in 1896 for the heroine in his classic play, Peter Pan.

So, what names are appropriate -- or more importantly, believable -- for the Regency? A look at social trends of the time is a good clue, but keep in mind that our heroines would have been named as infants, well before the Regency itself began, so look to Georgian trends rather than the Regency proper.

The social development towards naturalism can be seen in the popularity of flower names -- Margarette (aka Daisy), Rose, Poppy, Amaryllis -- a trend seen markedly in early Victorian days but begun in the late Georgian period. The same is true of jewel names -- Pearl, Ruby, Gemma, etc.

And some trends are eternal. Honoring one's deceased relatives was very popular, and if a family was driven by duty and honor, chances are they used this limited pool of ancestral names very often. (This is seen frequently even today, which explains why I have four uncles named Joseph and multiple cousins named Anthony).

Today first names are usually picked by the mother, but in the Georgian and Regency eras fathers often chose the name. If a man wanted to honor his father and had only a daughter, odds were the child received a feminized male name: Georgiana, Frederica, and the like.

There aren't a lot of repositories specific to the Georgian or Regency periods, but there are some excellent sites on other time periods. Some links for you to peruse:

Medieval Names -- a truly outstanding site, staffed by volunteers who love all things medieval

First names in Early Britain

The Origin of Names in a variety of cultures through history

Irish First Names through history, very brief but with social context

I hope this gives you some food for thought. I admit first name etymology is one of my obsessions, perhaps not shared by many authors, but I'd love to hear your own opinions on the topic.

Best to all,


Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I've never done real research on this, but I like giving my English characters simple, standard names that the British royal family might have now. It seems to me that the English weren't crazy about originality in names and so I try not to be either. I've always wondered in Georgian time "Charles" might be seen as too Jacobite (but there are a zillion Charlottes in the Regency so maybe not). I sometimes give my more minor and lower class characters Old Testament-sounding names to imply a sort low-church, dissenting sort of aura. And I try to keep away from Reginald and Nigel, which I know are not now awfully high class British names (though I don't know about then).

I did, however, name my latest heroine "Mary Artemis Elizabeth" so I could have her father-in-law harrumph about her parents not giving her a "decent English name."

But this (as should be obvious) is all flying blind. I'd love to hear from anyone who's made a consistent study of it.

3:04 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Hi Pam,

Regarding "Mary," it was seen as a strictly Roman Catholic name, so not much used in proper English families. I'm sorry but I don't recall the reference I had to that little tidbit.

I'd love to see a thorough study of names of the era, too. It's odd that there are so many sites devoted to ancient names, but few to the more modern Georgian and Victorian periods.


3:07 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I hadn't thought of that... gulp... but there were the Marys Wollstonecraft and Godwin Shelley (and Mary Wollstonecraft named one of her novels Mary). Also Jane Austen's wonderful Mary Crawford from Mansfield Park (someday, I'd like to write a book that gives Mary Crawford a fair shake). And Mary ("you have delighted us long enough") Bennet from P&P and Mary Musgrove (nee Eliot) from Persuasion.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Good point about the prevalence of Mary's in fiction. I wish I could track down the source for the Roman Catholic reference. It's possible that the name was so widely used in prior centuries that it continued on in families where it was entrenched.


3:33 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Doreen,

I use that medeival name website all the time. It's a lot of fun, and I struggle to avoid using the names in my books that look hard to read and pronounce, even though I think they are cool!

I did use "Eldswythe" as the name of my heroine in my first book though, a name my sister tells me is a mouthful. But now Lady E is Lady E and I can't see changing her. ;-)

Thanks for the post!

4:56 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Y. said...

Interesting post...I must admit as I am fascinated about the origin, history, and meaning of names, but I know so little about it.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oh, one more thing about names -- was ANYBODY named Heather or Brandon before Kathleen Woodiwiss published THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER in 1972?

10:13 AM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

How fascinating. I tend not to "name" my characters, they naming themselves, but I lean towards traditional names whose meanings somewhat match the characterization as opposed to the ones that stand out because it's overplayed in the romance genre(the heroes running around named Devlin? or Lucius? or heroines with these ultra-fabulous names?).

On that note, if my hero is titled, I usually refer to him by his title and he is addressed by his title, much like how it was during my time period.

But I understand the popularity in giving characters "better" or "sexier" names because those names can sound a bit fusty to modern readers and writers.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

The hero of To Tempt a Scotsman is named Collin. My CP asked me why I spelled it with two L's. Well, the name has been used since Medieval times, so I figure there have been a lot of spellings, Collin being one of them that is documented. (The name was used in both Scotland and England which is perfect for my lowland Scot.)

I don't know at what point the two L spelling was actually used, but I chose it for a simple reason: I didn't want anyone calling him "colon" in their heads! Historical accuracy be damned!

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Doreen. The antagonist in my current WIP is from Cornwall, so I researched old Cornish first names and surnames to come up with his name. I think making sure of things like that only enriches the story.

11:00 AM  

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