Tag Archives: names
Most people recognize that there are first names given almost exclusively by black Americans to their children, such as Jamal and Latasha.
Long before there was Jamal and Latasha, there was Booker and Perlie. The names have changed, but my colleagues and I traced the use of distinctive black names to the earliest history of the United States.
As scholars of history, demographics and economics, we found that there is nothing new about black names.
Black names aren’t new
Many scholars believe that distinctively black names emerged from the civil rights movement, perhaps attributable to the Black Power movement and the later black cultural movement of the 1990s as a way to affirm and embrace black culture. Before this time, the argument goes, blacks and whites had similar naming patterns.
Historical evidence does not support this belief.
Until a few years ago, the story of black names depended almost exclusively on data from the 1960s onward. New data, such as the digitization of census and newly available birth and death records from historical periods, allows us to analyze the history of black names in more detail.
We used federal census records and death certificates from the late 1800s in Illinois, Alabama and North Carolina to see if there were names that were held almost exclusively by blacks and not whites in the past. We found that there were indeed.
For example, in the 1920 census, 99% of all men with the first name of Booker were black, as were 80% of all men named Perlie or its variations. We found that the fraction of blacks holding a distinctively black name in the early 1900s is comparable to the fraction holding a distinctively black name at the end of the 20th century, around 3%.
What were the black names back then?
We were interested to learn that the black names of the late 1800s and early 1900s are not the same black names that we recognize today.
The historical names that stand out are largely biblical such as Elijah, Isaac, Isaiah, Moses and Abraham, and names that seem to designate empowerment such as Prince, King and Freeman.
These names are quite different from black names today such as Tyrone, Darnell and Kareem, which grew in popularity during the civil rights movement.
Once we knew black names were used long before the civil rights era, we wondered how black names emerged and what they represented. To find out, we turned to the antebellum era – the time before the Civil War – to see if the historical black names existed before the emancipation of slaves.
Using these new data sources, we found that names like Alonzo, Israel, Presley and Titus were popular both before and after emancipation among blacks. We also learned found that roughly 3% of black Americans had black names in the antebellum period – about the same percentage as did in the period after the Civil War.
But what was most striking is the trend over time during enslavement. We found that the share of black Americans with black names increased over the antebellum era while the share of white Americans with these same names declined, from more than 3% at the time of the American Revolution to less than 1% by 1860.
By the eve of the Civil War, the racial naming pattern we found for the late 1800s was an entrenched feature in the U.S.
Why is this important?
Black names tell us something about the development of black culture, and the steps whites were taking to distance themselves from it.
Scholars of African American cultural history, such as Lawrence W. Levine, Herbert Gutman and Ralph Ellison, have long held that the development of African American culture involves both family and social ties among people from various ethnic groups in the African diaspora.
In other words, people from various parts of Africa came together to form black culture as we recognize it today. One way of passing that culture on is through given names, since surnames were stolen during enslavement.
How this culture developed and persisted in a chattel slavery system is a unique historical development. As enslavement continued through the 1800s, African American culture included naming practices that were national in scope by the time of emancipation, and intimately related to the slave trade.
Since none of these black names are of African origin, they are a distinct African American cultural practice which began during enslavement in the U.S.
As the country continues to grapple with the wide-ranging effects of enslavement in the nation’s history, we cannot – and should not – forget that enslavement played a critical role in the development of black culture as we understand it today.
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Toadbollock, Dustiberd and Lytillskyll: historian on what names can tell us about everyday medieval life
Let me take you for a stroll down the high street of 12th-century Winchester – one of the great cities of medieval England – and introduce you to a few of the locals. Here’s Alberic Coquus, the cook, and over there is Ainulf Parcheminus, the parchment-maker. They are chatting to Luuing Scalarius (he builds ladders). Godric Softebred, who has his shop just down the road, is a baker – but his neighbours giggle behind his back and give his wife pitying glances.
You can’t miss Robert Crassus (“big, fat”), but I would hesitate to introduce you to Alfred Taddebelloc (“Toadbollock”) and you probably won’t want to stand too close to Radulf Scitliure (“shit-liver”, evidently cursed with chronic diarrhoea or some other stomach complaint). And perhaps we should simply cross the street to avoid me having to mention Godwin Clawecuncte (use your imagination) at all.
We know these names – with the intriguing clues they give about the people who carried them – from the two 12th-century surveys of Winchester property collectively known as the Winton Domesday. So, what’s in a medieval name? What can they tell historians about long-forgotten lives and individuals in the past? And why won’t you find anyone with the surname Toadbollock today?
These names don’t work in quite the same way as modern surnames. These (usually non-hereditary) medieval bynames add further detail to personal names, noting where someone was from, what job they did and even what they looked like or how they behaved.
Bynames often reflect physical attributes, such as those of Winchester’s Alestan Hwit (“white”), who probably had a fair complexion, or Alimer Longus (“tall”). You wouldn’t want to see Winchester’s Peter Agnell (“little lamb”) get into a fight with Godwin Bar (“boar”).
Many medieval historians have their own favourite names they’ve discovered during their research: Professor Anthony Bale of Birkbeck, University of London, mentions Tom Dustiberd (“dusty beard”) and the likely somewhat dishevelled Adam Charrecrowe (“scarecrow”), as well as Walter Boltuprith (“bolt-upright”).
Other bynames indicate trades and occupations. Richard Farrier was keeper of the king’s horses at Chester in the summer of 1283. Records show that he purchased cut grass for 20 horses, including that of the queen, and also for ten “great” horses arriving from Caernafon. He bought horseshoes, bridles, long ropes of hemp to make reins, as well as plenty of horse salve.
Other occupational bynames hint at less happy vocations. John Pynchware and his son worked as shoemakers in 15th-century Chester. But with a byname like that, how well did their shoes fit? Professor Matthew Davies of Birkbeck points to an apprentice tailor in London, 1486, named Rowland Lytillskyll. He doesn’t seem to have made it in his chosen career.
Bynames can also tell us about ethnic identities. Several people in 12th-century Winchester were called “Iudeius” – members of what would become the city’s thriving medieval Jewish community. Godwin Francigena, with his English personal name and byname meaning “Frenchman”, reminds us what a cosmopolitan, multicultural European city this was.
But sometimes bynames point to political and social tensions. Dr Adam Chapman, at the Institute for Historical Research, shares the example of the 14th-century Welshman known as Madog Drwgwrthgymro: literally “bad to Welshmen”, but translated by the historian Robert Rees Davies more provocatively as “Saxon-lover” – a smear based on perceived disloyalty and ethnic betrayal.
Another Welshman, William Cragh, features in medieval records as an outlaw –- or freedom fighter, depending on your viewpoint – who rebelled against Norman rule and was hanged, but came back to life (that’s another story. He cuts less of a romantic, heroic figure when we translate his Welsh byname – perhaps “Scabby William” had suffered some kind of disfiguring disease as a child. Still, he was more likely known by his fellow Welshmen by the patronymic “ap Rhys” (“son of Rhys”).
Somewhere in my own ancestry, someone probably worked as a clerk. Adam Chapman’s forebears possibly worked in a shop (“ceap-man” meant merchant, from the Old English “ceapan” meaning to sell or buy). Some bynames just stick around: Delia Smith doesn’t work in a forge, and Mary Beard doesn’t have one. But others, unsurprisingly, don’t outlast their original owners.
We see similar revisions when it comes to less appealing place names: just as William Cragh probably preferred being called William ap Rhys, the place where he was hanged in Swansea was renamed, in the late 19th century, from Gibbet Hill Road to the more estate agent-friendly North Hill Road.
So, why are medieval bynames so useful and engaging? For a start, some of them are hilarious – and they give us a humorous way into a seemingly remote and distant historical past. But, more than that, they offer a sense of connection with a real individual and a characteristic which defined them within their own, contemporary local community.
These medieval names also give us glimpses into something the big chronicles, charters and official history books often don’t tell us much about: ordinary people and their ordinary, colourful lives.
Ten previously forgotten Aboriginal names for 19th century sites and suburbs of Melbourne have been recently unearthed at the Melbourne Museum. These include the names for Fitzroy (Ngár-go), Richmond (Quo-yung), Collingwood (Yálla-birr-ang) and Brunswick (Bulleke-bek).
These names were in a cache of notes made by Alfred William Howitt, an anthropologist and Gippsland magistrate. His jottings appear to be records of conversations he had sometime between 1897 and 1901 with William Barak, ngurungaeta (leader) of the Wurundjeri-willam, the traditional owners of what is now northern Melbourne, and Dick Richards, Barak’s fellow Kulin countryman. (The Kulin was an alliance of Aboriginal nations in central Victoria.)
Howitt’s palm-sized, leather bound notebooks, written in his barely legible hand, were not precise or verbatim records of these conversations but aides to memory. Held in the museum since the 1950s as a small part of his extensive collection, they are difficult to decipher and require expert scholarship to decode. Throughout one notebook we can see that Howitt has jotted down Aboriginal names, mostly in the Woiwurrung language once spoken in the Melbourne area, corresponding to landmarks and municipalities that arose in Melbourne town during Barak’s lifetime. (He lived from around 1824 to 1903).
Although there is no accompanying map, these names identify landmarks and perhaps sites of Ancestral stories on land owned by Barak’s clan and beyond. They add some 10 new locality names and further tantalising details to what is already known from other publications.
Fitzroy, for example, the first suburb of Melbourne gazetted in 1839 and the first municipality beyond the Melbourne borders, is listed in Howitt’s notebook as Ngár-go, meaning “high ground”. Although a Woiwurrung name for the Fitzroy area has not been noted before, the records of colonist Daniel Bunce include “N’gorack”, a similar term to describe a “mountain, peak or hill”.
The suburb of Brunswick corresponds to Bulleke bek, a term that appears to include the suffix “bik” meaning “ground/country/place”, although Howitt’s English gloss for this name is difficult to decipher. His handwriting is so tiny and rushed that he appears to have either written “flat country with scattered trees” or “flat country where scott’s work”.
The boundaries of European suburbs or municipalities did not, of course, correspond with the pre-existing Aboriginal conceptions of place. We have to acknowledge that we do not exactly know what Barak and Richards were referring to when they provided Howitt with these terms. Did they refer to areas within a particular clan boundary (usually called an “estate” in anthropological parlance) or were they the names of very specific sites; perhaps a tree, a rock, a bend in the river or a hill? The truth is that in the absence of more precise geospatial information we will never know.
These names do nevertheless add further details to an alternative vision of Australia’s fastest growing metropolis. Some names describe land use or vegetation that have in most cases been eradicated, others are suggestive of ancestral stories.
The term for Collingwood Flat, Yalla-birr-ang, for example, is described as “a very old name” that means “the wooden point of a reed spear”. This may reference the place in a story where an Ancestor fashioned a spear point, or fixed one. To complicate things, though, a very similar term, yallanēbirong, was listed by an earlier ethnographer not as a place name, but as a word for “blanket”.
Indigenous words, phrases and place names have been taken up and used in mainstream Australia since colonisation, but often with a limited appreciation of their nuance or complexity. Universities, for example, are eagerly adopting Indigenous names to furnish their meeting rooms and public spaces. Some local councils are keen to source Indigenous names for new parks, river ways and streets.
And while the recuperation of this material is essential for recognising and acknowledging Indigenous presence (deep into the past and ongoing), interpreting this material is not straight-forward, as linguistic and anthropological literature has shown, especially when it comes from scant archival material.
The Woiwurrung name for “Cathedral”, “Geeburr” in Howitt’s notes is especially intriguing and difficult to decipher. It may refer to the site of one of the two Melbourne Cathedrals that were completed just prior to these conversations taking place. St. Pauls was largely finished in 1891, while St Patricks, situated on the high ground identified as Ngár-go (though further east than the borders of Fitzroy), was consecrated a little later in 1897.
Or, perhaps “Geeburr” is a generic reference to a place recognised as “sacred” by Aboriginal people and not a specific place name at all? The only other name referring to a building rather than a place is the “S.P. Office”, presumably meaning the office of the Superintendent of Police, which Howitt records as “Turrák-gullia arm”.
The trials of translation
Place names throw up many linguistic issues that we need to consider in our analysis. Aboriginal languages in Victoria had sounds not used in English which could easily confuse European scribes.
Take the name for the River Yarra. In 1876, Robert Brough Smyth recorded the Woiwurrung name for the river as “Birr-arrung”, but failed to tell us from whom or when it was collected. Most Melburnians will now recognise this in the name for the large green-space located nearby to Federation square, Birrarung Marr.
However many years earlier, Rev William Thomas made a sketch map of Aboriginal names for the rivers and creeks in the Yarra valley. He wrote “Yarra Yarra or Paarran” next to the outline of the course of the river. Melbourne still uses a derivative of this word, Prahran, for one of its suburbs, although it is not beside the river.
Edward M. Curr, in his 1887 book The Australian Race, recorded the name for the river as Bay-ray-rung. In fact these four words, Birrarrung, Paarran, Bay-ray-rung and Prahran, are different spellings of the same word. The original word included sounds we can’t write in English, and we cannot be sure of the original pronunciation (as there are no audio recordings of fluent speakers of the Kulin languages). We can at least say though, that this was a place name associated with the river, perhaps related to the word for “mist” or “fog”, that was elsewhere recorded as “boorroong” or “boorr-arrang”.
The more commonly known name “Yarra” however came from surveyor John Helder Wedge, who upon asking a Wathawurrung speaker from the Geelong area what the cascading waters on a lower section of the river were called, exclaimed “Yanna Yanna”, meaning “it flows”. Wedge’s mishearing and misunderstanding became the accepted name of Melbourne’s iconic waterway.
Howitt’s scrambled notes conjure the difficulties of precolonial interaction and cross-cultural understanding in early Melbourne but they also highlight the challenges of post-colonial recognition and adjustment. The faint echoes of the conversations between Richards, Barak and Howitt resonate from the 19th century as the citizens of present day Melbourne wrestle with our colonial heritage.
This research is part of a large multi-institutional project on colonial records involving Aboriginal communities, historians, linguists and anthropologists, led by Deakin University in partnership with Melbourne Museum.
The authors would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri Council for their assistance in preparing this article. Permission for access and use of any cultural information, language, and place names within this article must be obtained by written approval from the Wurundjeri Council.
Jason Gibson, Research Fellow, Deakin University; Helen Gardner, Associate Professor of History, Deakin University, and Stephen Morey, Senior Lecturer, Department of Languages and Linguistics, La Trobe University
Four stars in the night sky have been formally recognised by their Australian Aboriginal names.
The names include three from the Wardaman people of the Northern Territory and one from the Boorong people of western Victoria. The Wardaman star names are Larawag, Wurren and Ginan in the Western constellations Scorpius, Phoenix and Crux (the Southern Cross). The Boorong star name is Unurgunite in Canis Majoris (the Great Dog).
They are among 86 new star names drawn from Chinese, Coptic, Hindu, Mayan, Polynesian, South African and Aboriginal Australian cultures.
These names represent a step forward by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) – the global network of the world’s roughly 12,000 professional astronomers – in recognising the importance of traditional language and Indigenous starlore.
What’s that star called?
Many cultures around the world have their own names for the stars scattered across the night sky. But until 2016, the IAU never officially recognised any popular name for any star.
Instead, each star is assigned a Bayer Designation, thanks to a book published in 1603 by German astronomer Johann Bayer. He systematically assigned visible stars a designation: a combination of a Greek letter and the Latin name of the constellation in which it is found.
He gave the brightest star in a constellation the letter Alpha, then the next brightest star Beta, and so on down the list. For example, the brightest star in the Southern Cross is Alpha Crucis.
The IAU recognised that the lack of official star names was a problem. So the Working Group on Star Names (WGSN) was formed in 2016 to officially assign popular names to the hundreds of stars visible in the night sky.
That year the working group officiated 313 star names, derived mainly from the most commonly used Arabic, Roman and Greek names in astronomy. But the list contained few Indigenous or non-Western names.
That changed last year when the WGSN formally approved the 86 new star names drawn from other cultures. Aboriginal Australian cultures stretch back at least 65,000 years, representing the most ancient star names on the list.
The WGSN is looking to identify even more star names from Australia and other Indigenous cultures around the world. As Indigenous cultures have a rich collection of names for even the faintest stars, many new star names could gain IAU recognition.
So what do we know about these four stars and the origin of their names?
Wardaman star names
The Wardaman people live 145km southwest of Katherine in the Northern Territory. Wardaman star names come from Senior Elder Bill Yidumduma Harney, a well known artist, author and musician.
He worked with Dr Hugh Cairns to publish some of his traditional star knowledge in the books Dark Sparklers (2003) and Four Circles (2015). These books remain the most detailed records of the astronomical knowledge of any Aboriginal group in Australia.
Larawag (Epsilon Scorpii)
The stars of the Western constellation Scorpius feature prominently in Wardaman traditions, which inform the procedures of initiation ceremonies.
Merrerrebena is the wife of the Sky Boss, Nardi. She mandates ceremonial law, which is embodied in the red star Antares (Alpha Scorpii). Each star in the body of Scorpius represents a different person involved in the ceremony.
Larawag is the signal watcher, noting when only legitimate participants are present and in view of the ceremony. He gives the “All clear” signal, allowing the secret part of the ceremony to continue.
Epsilon Scorpii is an orange giant star, lying 63.7 light years away.
Wurren (Zeta Phoenicis)
Wurren means “child” in Wardaman. In this context it refers to the “Little Fish”, a child of Dungdung – the life-creating Frog Lady. Wurren gives water to Gawalyan, the echidna (the star Achernar), which they direct Earthly initiates to carry in small bowls. The water came from a great waterfall used to cool the people during ceremony.
Just as the water at the base of the waterfall keeps people cool and rises to the sky as mist, the water in the initiates’ bowls keeps them cool and symbolically transforms into clouds that bring the wet rains of the monsoon season. These ceremonies occur in late December when the weather is hot and these stars are high in the evening sky, signalling the start of the monsoon.
Zeta Phoenicis comprises two blue stars orbiting each other, 300 light years away. From our perspective, these two stars eclipse each other, changing in brightness from magnitude 3.9 to 4.4 every 1.7 days.
Ginan (Epsilon Crucis)
Ginan is the fifth-brightest star in the Southern Cross. It represents a red dilly-bag filled with special songs of knowledge.
Ginan was found by Mulugurnden (the crayfish), who brought the red flying foxes from the underworld to the sky. The bats flew up the track of the Milky Way and traded the spiritual song to Guyaru, the Night Owl (the star Sirius). The bats fly through the constellation Scorpius on their way to the Southern Cross, trading songs as they go.
The song informs the people about initiation, which is managed by the stars in Scorpius and related to Larawag (who ensures the appropriate personnel are present for the final stages of the ceremony).
The brownish-red colour of the dilly bag is represented by the colour of Epsilon Crucis, which is an orange giant that lies 228 light years away.
Boorong star name
Unurgunite (Sigma Canis Majoris)
The Boorong people of the Wergaia language group near Lake Tyrell in northwestern Victoria pride themselves on their detailed astronomical knowledge. In the 1840s, they imparted more than 40 star and planet names and their associated stories to the Englishman William Stanbridge, which he published in 1857.
In Boorong astronomy, Unurgunite is an ancestral figure with two wives. The Moon is called Mityan, the quoll. Mityan fell in love with one of the wives of Unurgunite and tried to lure her away.
Unurgunite discovered Mityan’s trickery and attacked him, leading to a great fight in which Mityan was defeated. The Moon has been wandering the heavens ever since, the scars of the battle still visible on his face.
Unurgunite can be seen as the star Sigma Canis Majoris (the Great Dog), with the two brighter stars on either side representing his wives.
One of the wives (Delta Canis Majoris) lies further away from Unurgunite and is closer to the Moon than the other wife (Epsilon Canis Majoris). This is the wife Mityan tried to lure away.
On rare occasions, the Moon passes directly over the wife of his desires, symbolising his attempts to draw her away. He also passes over Unurgunite, representing their battle in the sky. But Mityan, and Moon, never passes over the other wife (with the Arabic name Adhara).
Delta Canis Majoris is an orange-red supergiant that lies 1,120 light years away.
Our lives run on Roman time. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and public holidays are regulated by Pope Gregory XIII’s Gregorian Calendar, which is itself a modification of Julius Caesar’s calendar introduced in 45 B.C. The names of our months are therefore derived from the Roman gods, leaders, festivals, and numbers. If you’ve ever wondered why our 12-month year ends with September, October, November, and December – names which mean the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months – you can blame the Romans.
The calendar of Romulus
The Roman year originally had ten months, a calendar which was ascribed to the legendary first king, Romulus. Tradition had it that Romulus named the first month, Martius, after his own father, Mars, the god of war. This month was followed by Aprilis, Maius, and Iunius, names derived from deities or aspects of Roman culture. Thereafter, however, the months were simply called the fifth month (Quintilis), sixth month (Sixtilis) and so on, all the way through to the tenth month, December.
The institution of two additional months, Ianuarius and Februarius, at the beginning of the year was attributed to Numa, the second king of Rome. Despite the fact that there were now 12 months in the Roman year, the numerical names of the later months were left unchanged.
Further reading: Explainer: the gods behind the days of the week
Gods and rituals
While January takes its name from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, February comes from the word februum (purification) and februa, the rites or instruments used for purification. These formed part of preparations for the coming of Spring in the northern hemisphere.
The februa included spelt and salt for cleaning houses, leaves worn by priests, and strips of goat skin. These strips were put to good use in the festival of the Lupercalia, held each year on February 15. Young men, naked except for a goat-skin cape, dashed around Rome’s sacred boundary playfully whipping women with the strips. This ancient nudie run was designed to purify the city and promote fertility.
The origins of some months were debated even by the Romans themselves. One tradition had it that Romulus named April after the goddess Aphrodite, who was born from the sea’s foam (aphros in Ancient Greek). Aphrodite, known as Venus to the Romans, was the mother of Aeneas, who fled from Troy to Italy and founded the Roman race. The other version was that the month derived from Latin verb aperio, “I open”. As the poet Ovid wrote:
For they say that April was named from the open season, because spring then opens all things, and the sharp frost-bound cold departs, and earth unlocks her teeming soil …
There were similar debates about the origins of May and June. There was a story that Romulus named them after the two divisions of the Roman male citizen body, the maiores (elders) and iuniores (juniors). However, it was also believed that their names came from deities. The nymph Maia, who was assimilated with the earth, gave her name to May, while Juno, the goddess of war and women, was honoured by the month of June.
Further reading: Explainer: the seasonal calendars of Indigenous Australia
The numerical names of the months in the second half of the year remained unchanged until the end of the Roman Republic. In 44 B.C., Quintilis was rebranded as Iulius, to celebrate the month in which the dictator Julius Caesar was born.
This change survived Caesar’s assassination (and the outrage of the orator M. Tullius Cicero, who complained about it in his letters). In 8 B.C., Caesar’s adoptive son and heir, the emperor Augustus, had Sextilis renamed in his honour. This was not his birth month (which was September), but the month when he first became consul and subjugated Egypt.
This change left four months – September, October, November and December – for later emperors to appropriate, though none of their new names survive today. Domitian renamed September, the month he became emperor, to Germanicus, in honour of his victory over Germany, while October, his birthday month, he modestly retitled Domitianus, after himself.
However, Domitian’s arrogance paled in comparison with the megalomaniacal Commodus, who rebranded all the months with his own imperial titles, including Amazonius (January) and Herculeus (October).
If these titles had survived Commodus’s death, we would not have the problem of our year ending with months carrying the wrong numerical names. But we would be celebrating Christmas on the 25th of Exsuperatorius (“All-Surpassing Conqueror”).
Vikings are pretty trendy of late. Marvel’s Thor films, for example, gave Viking mythology the Hollywood treatment and plonked its characters in contemporary America. There have been multiple Viking exhibitions, and the new season of the History channel’s show Vikings, loosely based on the legendary Icelandic sagas, is about to hit the small screen, too.
So you may find it hard to avoid overhearing details of the adventures of Vikings’ King Ragnar Lothbrok and his fellows in coming weeks. Undeniably, the names of the television show’s characters, such as Bjorn Ironside, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and Ivar the Boneless, stand out jarringly from the usual linguistic landscape, and with the confirmation of new characters being added to the cast, this horde of oddball Norse names is sure only to get weirder.
High time, I think, for a masterclass on Viking names.
In all societies names are important linguistic signifiers of identity. They also carry historical information in various ways. In the modern English-speaking world, for example, people are familiar with the convention of given names paired with a surname – e.g. Joseph Henry Bloggs.
But the names of Viking-Age Scandinavians typically consisted of single given names combined with patronymics marking paternal descent. As an example, let’s take the legendary hero Ragnar himself. Written in Old Norse, the sagas describe Ragnarr Sigurðsson (Ragnar, the son of Sigurd). This convention is particularly useful for tracing genealogies. Rather than following the tangled branches of a surname’s family tree, these names more clearly convey genealogical information and can be linked together to neatly unpack family histories.
For example, using the sagas, Ragnar’s name could be expanded further to Ragnarr Sigurðsson, Randvéssonar (Ragnar, the son of Sigurd, the son of Randvér). This structure, still in use in Iceland today, has allowed modern Icelanders to reliably trace their family histories for a millennium.
But if he was born Ragnarr Sigurðsson, where does Lothbrok come from, and what does it mean? The third common component of Viking-Age Scandinavian names was a nickname, Ragnar’s being Lothbrok, or loðbrók in Old Norse. So his full name is Ragnarr loðbrók Sigurðsson. Nicknames were especially important to Viking-Age Scandinavians, as evidence suggests that their stock of given names was extremely thin. Apart from introductions, sagas tend to describe their characters solely by their first and nickname for easier identification. This is why we most often hear about Ragnarr loðbrók, rather than his full name.
An individual’s nickname could even become so ubiquitous that it replaced a given name, as pointed out by Diana Whaley. She highlights examples from the sagas, such as a Thorgrim, named after his father (Þorgrímr Þorgrímsson), who was renamed Snorri, a nickname describing his tempestuous nature.
Though Viking-Age Scandinavians placed greater importance on nicknames than many of us do today, their nicknames functioned in the same way we’re used to: each described a particular aspect of an individual’s nature or life that carried particular resonance. This was not always desirable: names such as Ulf the Squint-Eyed, Eirik Ale-Lover, Eystein Foul-Fart and some that are even worse demonstrate that people rarely had a say in the nicknames they carried.
The makers of the Vikings TV series have attempted to address the idea of Viking nicknames and where they come from, particularly those of Ragnar’s sons, but Ragnar’s nickname – Lothbrok – has gone unexplored and has even been used almost like a surname in the series. This is probably because it means “shaggy trousers”. At first this hardly seems a nickname befitting a Viking warrior king, but then again, neither does Finehair, the nickname of one of the confirmed new characters being introduced to the show, Haraldr Hárfagri.
But while some nicknames are downright slanderous, Ragnar’s and Harald’s are in no way belittling. In fact, they actually contain information about the heroic exploits of their bearers. The sagas tell us that Ragnar earned his nickname from his use of shaggy garments to protect against the bites of a giant serpent he killed, while Harald earned his by swearing never to cut nor comb his hair until he had conquered the whole of Norway.
Other names convey something about the physical attributes of their bearers: such as Walking Hrolf, who apparently was too big to be borne by a horse, or Thorsteinn Dromund, who purportedly moved as slowly as a great warship. Some can even reveal something about the way the individual dressed or their international outlook: such as Bare-legged Magnus, who is recorded in one source as having adopted a more Gaelic fashion sense, and Olaf Sandal, who seems to have taken to wearing contemporary Irish footwear – when he is named in sources, his nickname even usually appears in its Irish form.
These nicknames are essential to historical or fictional portrayals of these characters. Whether used in a medieval saga, or a modern television series, they connect characters to complex webs of allusions, involving family histories, personal back stories, and even more distantly related tales. They were vital in driving the narratives of the sagas and today are an under-utilised resource for reimaginings of these stories.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at Sydney’s French suburb names.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article that takes a look at how the various provinces and territories of Canada got their names.