‘How does one “collect” girls’ names?’ you perhaps ask politely, while thinking, ‘Hmmm! It’s not like collecting stamps or coins!’ Well, initially I would borrow or buy ‘given name’ books, and also extract names from birth, marriage and death notices. By the age of 13, I was going into the State Library by myself and looking up name books from all over the world. I was only interested in girls’ names because surnames could be used as boys’ names. Ultimately I had a list of 22,000 girls’ names. In those pre-computer days, it became unmanageable and I was forced to give up. Yet I always retained a fascination for names, indeed for words and sounds generally, which probably explains why I majored in linguistics at university.
Names are intriguing. You have almost certainly looked in a ‘names’ book to see what your name means. ‘Carol’, for example, is pretty obvious. It means ‘song of joy’. Whenever people ask me how to spell it, I say ‘as in Christmas’! (Just as an aside, following the last few months’ History Hints, Christmas carolling also had its origins in pagan rituals: during the winter solstice celebrations, the Roman Mummers would dress up in costume and travel from house to house, singing and dancing to entertain their neighbours.) The name Carol itself first became popular in America in the twentieth century, probably from the influence of cinema, and was a shorter form of the older Caroline.
Names, names, names. Imagine how I felt when I acquired a job in my ‘new’ hobby, family history research, and had access to lists and lists of genuine names. I temporarily sated my passion when I edited the General Musters of NSW, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land 1811 (Australian Biographical and Genealogical Record, Sydney, 1987—sample below) by including lists of all the male and female given names noted in the musters, sorted both alphabetically and by frequency. As a family historian, I have since found these lists useful in indicating commonness or rarity.
The muster listed all the adults resident in the colony except Aboriginals, government officials, and soldiers and their wives. Most residents were serving or emancipated convicts who came primarily from England and Ireland, but also from other parts of the world. The lists provided some fascinating statistics. The four most common male names were: John (19%), William (14%), Thomas (11%) and James (9%). This means that one in every two adult males living at that time in New South Wales—and, by extension, England in the late 1700s and early 1800s—carried one of these four names (imagine being a schoolteacher!). While these names were also used in Ireland, the Irish influence was particularly seen in the eighth name: Patrick (3%). The top 15 names were carried by 83% of males. Clearly ‘common names’ in those days were truly common, which means that an ‘uncommon’ given name might actually have been rare.
Only 0.7% of the male population and 0.7% of the female population had a ‘middle’ name (fascinating that the percentages were the same). Multiple given names didn’t become common for the working classes until after 1850. Later in the century, families went overboard and began giving their offspring two, three and four middle names. Today, it has settled down to a customary single middle name.
Families were even less original in naming their daughters. One in every two girls had the name Mary (24%), Elizabeth (14%) or Ann(e) (14%). The top fifteen girls’ names were carried by 87% of the women.
Next year I will write a book about given names. It will discuss how certain names became popular and provide detailed statistics on frequency (both from the 1811 Muster and a broader cross-section of years), as well as other interesting and useful information for family historians. This should finally sate my passion for names!