Forename - onomastics

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In onomastics - the study of proper nouns - one of the central subjects is that of personal names (sometimes called 'anthroponymy'). The study of forenames is one of the two principal subdivisions of this; the other is the study of surnames.

  • The etymology of forenames is haphazard. Parents in different cultures and societies draw names for their children from a variety of sources, histories and traditions. The most common element, probably, is that the name is chosen to mark the respect in which a namesake is held. In traditional British society, children are usually named after
    • relatives, such as grandparents or other forebears, whether deceased or still living (in Scotland it was very common to name a son, usually the first, by the mother's maiden name)
    • saints (in Europe, particularly in those countries with a strong attachment to the Roman Catholic church where it may be mandated by law, this is widespread)
    • historical figures whom it is desired to commemorate, such as kings, statesmen and generals - as well as less distinguished individuals with whom the parents have been in close contact, such as midwives, commanding officers, ministers of religion and colleagues
    • contemporary figures whom the parents much admire, such as sportsmen, performers and politicians.
  • Old English forenames were more varied, as the habit was to construct a new name for each child. These were commonly built up by compounding common nouns, as in Harold, derived from here ('army') and weald ('ruler'). (It was written as Hereweald in Old English.) It is close to Hereward, another Old English name, composed of the elements here, 'army' and ward 'guard', which was the name of a leader of resistance to William the Conqueror, active in the Fens, Hereward the Wake, 'the watchful'. Æthelflæd (the name of the 'Lady [ruler] of the Mercians'), a daughter of King Alfred, from aethel 'noble' and flaed 'beauty'; for his name, see King Alfred); Edith, from ēad, 'prosperity, riches' and gȳð 'strife' shares the first element ēad with Edward, who adds ward, 'guard'; Edgar, who adds gār 'spear'; and Edmund, who adds mund 'protector'. Wilfred (or Wilfrid) is from Old English wil 'desire' (cognate with modern 'will') and frið 'peace'; (see also Wilfred - Wilfrid.) Ethelred (originally Æþelræd) is a compound of æþele 'noble' and ræd 'counsel'. Cuthbert is formed from cūð 'known' and beorht 'bright, famous'.
  • Gaelic forenames too are often compounded. The compounding may betray something of a different culture. For example, Malcolm is the English transliteration of Scots Gaelic Mael Coluim, which means 'devotee of [Saint] Columba': early Scots Christians felt it "to be presumptuous to give the names of saints directly to children; instead their blessing was invoked by prefixing the name with mael ‘devotee of’ or gille ‘servant of’ (Hanks, Hardcastle and Hodges, 2006). Donald is the English form of Gaelic Domhnall, formed from dubno 'world' and val 'rule'. In Erse, Diarmid (which has been anglicized to Dermot), is "of uncertain derivation; perhaps from 'without' and airmit 'injunction' or airmait 'envy' (Hanks, Hardcastle and Hodges, 2006).