What Does It Mean?

Names - Forenames

by Mike Fitton

Mike Fitton is a resident of Bracebridge and an honorary member of the MPSGG. He is very knowledgeable on English research and has spoken at many of the club meetings.

You are lucky enough to find an old letter written in 1710 by a person who seems to be a relative. The most interesting part refers to Hick’s Nancy and Nob o’ Hodge o’ Billybob’s. What does this mean?

As my last article (surnames) showed, any version that sounds like the name you are looking for, may well be exactly that. Forenames are much more valuable than surnames, and apart from the name itself with its various spellings, you may also expect to find Latin equivalents before 1730, and pet names or diminutives until recent times. When searching old records or the IGI, it is wise to have in hand a list of as many versions as possible of the name you are looking for.

Latin names are fairly easy. Take a familiar name, add - us for a boy, or - a for a girl. Eduardus for Edward, and Alicia for Alice, are obvious. There are a few unusual ones; Gualterius for Walter, Aegidius for Giles, Seisilla for Cecily, and Ethelreda for Audrey are examples. Most people used the common Johannis (John), Maria (Mary), Jacobus (James) and Anna (Ann). Note that sometimes these were abbreviated to Joh, Mar, Jac and An. And don’t forget Xpofer for Christopher, the Xp being Greek for Chr.

Pet names are still with us, some as names in their own right. John and Anthony are often called Jack and Tony. Frances and Dorothy are often called Fanny and Dot. In some cases, there are large numbers of pet versions of one name:

Ann - Annie, Nan, Nanny, Nancy, Ena
Elizabeth - Bess, Betsy, Bessie, Beth, Eliza, Libby, Lizzie, Tetsy, Tettie, Tibby.
Helen - Eleanor, Ellen, Lena, Nell, Nellie.
Henrietta - Esther, Hester, Etty, Hessie, Hetty.
Margaret - Maggie, Meg, Peg, Peggy.
Mary - Mally, Molly, Mamie, Minnie, Polly.
Martha - Massie. Mattie, Patty.
Robert - Bob, Bobby, Dob, Hob, Nob, Rob, Robbie.
Richard - Hick, Dick, Rick. Peter - Piers, Pierce.
Christopher - Kit, Kester, Chris.

It took me a while to understand that the pet name for Sarah is Sally, but it answered several questions. There were also local versions of pet names, and whenever you encounter one that is strange, look it up. Don Steel, in the National Index of Parish Registers, suggests that Elizabeth and Isobel were the same name, as were Joan and Jane.

How did people get their forenames? In those days, when religion was part of most daily lives, a child was commonly named after his or her godparent. Normally, respected family members were godparents. The first four sons were likely named for father’s father, mother’s father, father and father’s brother. The first four daughters were likely named for mother’s mother, father’s mother, mother and mother’s sister.

This is why you will often find names of first children alternate John-William-John-William for generation after generation. Also, in a family of four brothers, if the first son of each brother has the same name odds are that the father of those brothers has that name.

Don’t be surprised to find two children with the same name in a family. A son may be named John for his grandfather, and another son named John for his uncle. I have a will, which refers to sons John, Robert, and John. A copying error? But probate was granted to John, Robert, and John as executors. Eldest brother John went off to the wars. Robert and his brother "John the younger" bought some land together. It is confusing, but not unusual.

Also remember that only about half of the children born 250 years ago reached their fifth birthday. It was usual to keep using the same name until the user survived. So if you see a string of Henry’s born to the same parents in 1720, 1723, 1725 and 1728, expect the first three have died within a year or so of birth.

Now let’s consider Hick’s Nancy and Nob o’ Hodge o’ Billybob’s. These sound more like racehorses than people. Hick’s Nancy was of course Richard’s daughter Ann or Nancy. Robert (Nob) was the son of Roger (Hodge), who was in turn the son of Robert son of William. People used these names to distinguish among many people having identical names and trades in the same community. Additional forenames did not become popular until well into the 1800s.

Speaking of nicknames, consider these three brothers who were alive in 1700 - Great Ab, Hop Harry and Slavering Doss. The first was a large muscular man called Abraham. The second was an active fellow with a limp called Henry. It was not a good idea to stand in front of the third, called Joshua, if you wanted to avoid a shower of saliva when he spoke.

This article first appeared in the April 1995 newsletter, Volume 11 - Number 1