The History of Virtue Names
This article provides a quick history of the use of "virtue" names.
Updated July 14, 2023
The History of Virtue Names
Teutonic, or Germanic, refers to the ancient people and languages of northern Europe. Among these languages are Old High German, the ancestor of modern German; Old Franconian which evolved into Dutch; and Anglo-Saxon, the ancestor of modern English.
Virtue names have come to be most closely associated with the Puritans, but they hardly started with this religious group. The Greeks and Romans were also big believers in the power that a name could hold. Gladiators and scholars alike often sought names that would protect their children from negative influences and imbue them with desirable traits, such as strength or wisdom. They hoped these traits would develop in their heirs as they grew up.
Many of the early names that would eventually shape the Indo-European name pool also reflected such prized virtues as wisdom, protection, and strength. The Teutonic element -mund, which formed such names as Edmund, Raymond, and Osmond, meant "peace" or "protector," and these names were all variations on this theme, meaning "wealthy protector" (Edmund), "divine protector" (Osmond), and "counselor-protector" (Raymond).
By 1590, when the Puritan movement first developed as a sect of the Church of England, these names had largely been replaced by the names of saints and martyrs, as dictated by the Catholic Church, and then by the biblical names that were embraced by the Church of England. However, even these names were too evocative of the Catholic Church for the Puritans, and they began to baptize their children with phrases from Scripture or pious admonitions. In time, they also adopted words that reflected abstract virtues as names.
The Things They Carried
What's in a Name
Many of the biblical names favored by the first settlers in America had virtuous meanings, including Solomon ("peaceable") and Enoch ("vowed" or "dedicated to the Lord").
When the Puritans fled to America to escape religious persecution in England, they brought their virtue and phrase names with them. Most of the phrase or admonishment names—like Fly-fornication, Search-the-scriptures, Fight-the-good-fight-of-faith, and Makepeace—were so extreme that they never came into general use. Some of the less vitriolic names were accepted, especially the ones with meanings that emphasized positive virtues, including:
Amity: Based on the Latin for "friendship" or "love," it's pretty old-fashioned today but could be an interesting alternative to Amy.
Charity: One of the three cardinal virtues taught by Jesus Christ, it's never near the top of the name lists but it never fades entirely from sight either.
Faith: Another cardinal virtue but a bit more popular than the others. Current bearers of this name include newscaster and talk show host Faith Daniels, actress Faith Ford, and singer Faith Hill. In 1997, this name was popular enough to rank just below the top 100 on the most popular name list.
Grace: The Puritans used this word to describe the state of being in God's favor rather than a reflection of pleasant physical attributes. This name is in broad enough use to rank 70th on the top 100 names for 1998, and could come on even stronger as more parents search for homespun, old-fashioned-sounding names.
Honor: Maybe more popular as Honora however, rarely used in either form today.
Hope: The third cardinal virtue and one that has seen a revival in the past 10 years or so, possibly due to the use of the name on the popular late 80s television showThirty something.
Joy: Somewhat outdated today, but occasionally seen as a middle name.
Patience: Along with Prudence, the oldest-sounding Puritan virtue name to survive to the modern era. Not very popular, and unlikely to increase in use.
None of the names used for boys ever made it into broad circulation, which isn't very surprising when you consider how strange these names really were. It's one thing to give your child a somewhat odd or unusual biblical name, like Job or Magog, but it's quite another to brand him with a moniker like Helpless, No-merit, or Repentance.