Looking for Historically Accurate Names for Your Historical Novel

B.J. SEDLOCK

Illustration’s title: “BEATRICE” My aunt, born in the 1910s, hated her middle name “Beatrice,” but it has made a  comeback in popularity recently. Credit: Library of Congress control number det1994002542/PP

Illustration’s title: “BEATRICE”
My aunt, born in the 1910s, hated her middle name “Beatrice,” but it has made a comeback in popularity recently. Credit: Library of Congress control number
det1994002542/PP

Are you a stickler for historical accuracy? Do you want to make sure your characters have period-appropriate names? There are some good websites that can help with naming problems. Many of these sites below were created for prospective parents wanting to select a name for their child-to-be, or for people into historical re-enactment groups, but novelists will still find the good ones useful.

I’ve selected websites that give at least some information about which historical sources were used to compile their offerings. If the era you are interested in is not included, it may be because I could not find a website that met that criteria.

 

HISTORIC BRITISH NAMES

The historical section of this blog by Coventry schoolteacher Eleanor Nickerson contains some interesting lists she compiled from the GRO Birth Records in the late 1860s and early 1870s, just on the first couple pages of the blog. There are additional years available if you continue looking at older posts. If your Victorian character needs a distinctive name, how about “Dorcas Obedience” or “Ethelbert Duodecimus”? Additional blog posts cover Edwardian and Restoration eras, with names in Nickerson’s blog provided by period sources. She offers numerous posts on ancient Greek names for girls, and traces variations of selected names through history such as “Elvira” and “Zoe.” Yet another post discusses Victorian-era Romany names. Historical novelists who love period authenticity will especially like the fact that Nickerson compiles her name lists from period documents.

 

 

HISTORIC AMERICAN NAMES

Percy C. Adams “Percy” was popular in the early 1900s, but is rarely given to boys today. Credit: Library of Congress  control number npc2008013189

Percy C. Adams
“Percy” was popular in the early 1900s, but is rarely given to boys today. Credit: Library of Congress
control number npc2008013189

This site is provided by the U.S. Government’s Social Security Administration, which tracks the popularity of baby names through the decades. From this page, you can use the drop-down menu box to select the decade, back to the 1880s, which will then display, in order of popularity, the names of American babies born during the decade. For example, “John” and “Mary” were the most-often bestowed names during every decade between the 1880s and 1910s. The names are drawn from those who applied for a Social Security card, though the site cautions that people born before 1937 were not required to apply for a card, so those people’s names are not included in the lists. Each spelling variation (Caitlin, Kaytlin, etc.) has its own rank and are not combined.  Male and females are listed separately within each decade.

 

 

HISTORIC CANADIAN NAMES

This site is offered by Canada’s Global Television Network, and has an interesting interactive way to look up the historical popularity of Canadian names in Ontario. There is a box called “Searchable Interactive: Ontario Girls’ Names, 1917-2020.” You can then enter a girl’s name and the site will display a line graph showing the name’s popularity during that time span. If you continue to search for more names, the lines for the previous searches will remain on the graph, allowing comparison. There is a separate box for searching boys’ names. The site draws its data from the Ministry of Government Services.

 

HISTORIC AUSTRALIAN NAMES

A tobacco advertisement from about 1871.  “Pearl” is a much less popular girl’s name in recent decades than it was then. Credit: Library of Congress control number  95504983

A tobacco advertisement from about 1871. “Pearl” is a much less popular girl’s name in recent decades than it was then. Credit: Library of Congress control number
95504983

This section of the “Essential Baby” website is offered by Fairfax Media, an Australian media company that published the Sydney Morning Herald, among other newspapers. This page is aimed at couples searching for current baby names, but there is a way to look at Australian names back to 1930. In the column on the right, under “Today’s Top 10 Baby Names” there is a place where you can click on a particular year. Pick any of the years, and the next page will offer, on the left-hand side, a list of years back to 1930 that will rank Australian baby names in order of popularity. “Margaret” and “John” were the most popular in 1930, for example. The site doesn’t specify where it draws its data from, just that it uses “official stats.”

The government of New South Wales offers an interactive site similar to the Canadian one described above. It offers a search box where you can type in a name, and the site will show a graph depicting its popularity between 1900 and 2011. If you type a name that has variants, like “Ann”, the graph will also show “Anne,” “Annette,” etc. The data is drawn from the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

 

 

 

MEDIEVAL NAMES

This site is run by the Academy of Saint Gabriel, a “group of around 50 volunteers who research medieval names and armory.” One of their aims is “to provide free consulting and education to the populace of medieval re-enactment groups.” Their site does not provide lists of names itself, but offers a large collection of websites and articles that do list English, Welsh, Slavic, Pictish, Frankish, Arabic, and many other names. The St. Gabriel site also offers related information, like a list of name websites the owners recommend be avoided (reasons are given), “problem names,” and suggestions for the naming of ships, buildings, and military units. This is a good site to spend some time exploring. The group’s main period is medieval, but I also saw links to names from the 17th century names, ancient Rome, and pre-1600 India.

 

ANCIENT NAMES

U.S. Civil War General  Rufus Ingalls “Rufus” as a name has cycled up and down in popularity since Roman times. Credit: Library of Congress control number brh2003003004/PP

U.S. Civil War General
Rufus Ingalls
“Rufus” as a name has cycled up and down in popularity since Roman times. Credit: Library of Congress control number
brh2003003004/PP

Roman: “Nova Roma is an international organization dedicated to the study and restoration of ancient Roman culture.” This webpage gives information on how Roman names were formulated, explaining the theory, and then below offers a chart of choices for nomen-cognomen combinations. The group’s purpose for providing the name suggestions is aimed at people wanting to join the organization, but historical novelists can use it to construct a Roman name.

 

Viking: The Viking Network is “a dynamic educational resource about the Vikings,” a Norwegian site in English, and a nonprofit venture which started in the early 1990s. The site acknowledges contributions by historians and educators in England, Canada, Iceland, and other countries. The Given Names page the above link takes you to offers “genuine Viking given names.” The names are still in use today, and the site gives current popularity statistics for Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Judith Pfaff offers this site about Nordic names. If you scroll down to the category “Ancient names,” you can select from Old Norse, Danish or Swedish names. The page offers a bibliography tab listing the sources she used to compile the names on her site.

 

Note: There are lots of other names sites available via your browser, but if you want accuracy, use caution. View the “about us” information on the page. If “about us” or contact information is not given, its historical accuracy may be questionable. Is there a reason the site owners conceal this information? Some dot-com websites’ primary purpose may be to sell you something, rather than disseminate information. Explore the site and try to find out who owns it and what the site’s real purpose is, before assuming the list of names is accurate.

 

About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Metadata and Archives Librarian at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.

 

Posted by Claire Morris

Responses

  1. Pam Thomas
    May 25, 2016

    Names are so important – they give you a handle on the character, whether you’re writing or reading, and choosing the wrong one can really shatter the illusion (and all historical novel writing is essentially creating an illusion). I remember the pre-1066 Saxon given a Norman first name and surname, for example, or names that you’d find in a modern primary school adorning Regency bucks and belles. For all dates after 1537, parish registers are a good source: many are printed or available online, and you can get a good idea of just how many men and women over the ages were called John, Thomas, Mary or Elizabeth. Which is doubtless why some authors like to give their heroines, in particular, very fanciful or romantic names (Georgette Heyer, much though I love her books, being one of them).