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The Earliest Names

Learn about the history of the naming tradition, starting with the Anglo-Saxons and following the Norman invasion.

In this article, you will find:

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The Earliest Names

The earliest names were very simple, given the rudimentary form of language millennia ago. It's a pretty sure bet that none of these names survive in their original form today (although “Ugh” could have formed the basis for “Hugh”).

With such a small population, there was no need for people to be identified by any more than one name. These “single” names (they really weren't first names because no middle or last names came after them) often related to a physical attribute or a circumstance of birth. Many of them still survive as surnames.

It is assumed, since there are no definitive records to support this, that naming continued along these lines for many centuries. But in the early part of the eleventh century something happened in England that not only served to change existing naming practices, it would also provide the first record of the names that were in use at the time. For this, we have a guy named William and a race named Norman to thank.

Alphabet Soup

A surname is a name that is added to a given name, primarily for identification purposes. It derives from the Old French surnom, which means “over name,” as it was often written above the given name, not on the same line.

Alphabet Soup

Anglo-Saxon refers to the people who lived in England before the Norman Conquest and the language they spoke. The term is synonymous with Old English.

Enter the Normans

In 1066, the residents of England found themselves under siege by herds of marauding nomads from the east. Led by a particularly fervent fellow named William (a.k.a. William the Conqueror), they swept the land and overtook everything in sight, claiming everything they plundered for their home country.

Not only did William and his crew take over the population, they took over its language, replacing the simple names that had been used in England for centuries with unfamiliar, strange-sounding (at least to English ears) Norman names. Where original English names had been drawn chiefly from the Anglo-Saxon language, Norman names were primarily of German or French origin (the Normans having conquered these countries first), which we today associate with German- or French-speaking peoples. So, thanks to the Norman Conquest, many of the names we today think of as being English are actually German or French in origin.

Before William and his crew arrived, it was an English tradition to create new names by combining elements from existing names. As you can see by the following list, some of these combinations were pretty awkward. It's a good bet that none of them will climb onto the most popular name charts anytime soon, and perhaps that's a good thing. Can you imagine the ridicule a boy named But would face in school? And how about a little girl with the moniker of Wakerilda?

Old English Girls' Names Old English Boys' Names
Alditha Ailmar
Alveva Ailsi
Edild Alnod
Goda Brunloc
Goldyva But
Leofrun Ingulf
Wakerilda Theodulf

From: Leslie Alan Dunkling, First Names First (Universe Books, 1977).


While Old English names have gained in popularity during the last decade, there are some that are best left to the history books or name dictionaries. You'll find many of these names included in a variety of baby-name books, but don't take such inclusion as a stamp of approval, as it usually only reflects the author's desire to be as comprehensive as possible. You should still think twice about saddling your newborn with such a moniker as Livilda or Osbert.

This naming tradition was largely abandoned when the Normans came calling, as they forced their new subjects to adopt many of their traditions, including the ones they had for names. Instead of creating names, the Normans generally relied on an established group of monikers that was passed on through families, or they would name their children in honor of special friends or famous people. One of the results of this practice was a significant reduction in the number of names available for use.

As the pool of names dwindled, certain names came to dominate, leading to the adoption of family names, or last names, in about 1100 C.E. This practice, which is believed to have started in Italy, moved through Europe as the demands of an increasing population necessitated a procedure for distinguishing Edward the father from Edward the son from Edward the uncle. These last names, or surnames, were often built from popular first names, as in the case of John becoming Johnson (son of John). They also often reflected what the individual did for a living, such as Potter or Baker, or were taken from their hometowns.

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