Female names : flowers, fashions and faux-pas

single blush-pink climbing rose flower against blue skyvariegated ivy growing up a stone wallleaves of a rather leggy laurus nobilis (bay) tree

The images above (in case you were wondering) show various plants from my drought-ridden garden, specifically: rose, ivy, catmint, bay (laurel). Anything strike you about them?
Yes, three of them also provide female names.  At least, they do in English.

I don’t think it’s usual to call a baby girl “Catmint”. Unless you know someone called that?

But Rose, Ivy, and Laura (Laurel) used to be fairly common.

bee on lavender flowersspikes of blue delphiniumsAlong with Pansy,
the occasional Delphine (Delphinium),
and loads more…

marsh marigolds in flower in spring

…even Marigold

It happens in other languages, too. The Welsh name Blodwen means “white flower”.

Female names in English. And male names too?

I’ve blogged before about English and the strange ways it uses or doesn’t use words. Then, I was wondering why we rabbit or badger but we never mole. This time I’m wondering about the way we name female babies after things like flowers.
bumble-bee-pink-flowerAah… sweet…
Or is it?

What does it say about us, and our view of females, that we do this?
When was the last time you heard of a male being named after a flower?

Actually, there is always Basil…
Shades of Basil Fawlty? I can almost hear Sybil yelling “Basil” in that ear-splitting way of hers, with the second syllable several octaves higher than the first. (As memorable, in its own way, as Dame Edith Evans and “a handbag?” in The Important of Being Earnest.)

basil herb in profusion

Basil: cooking not naming?

Somehow I doubt that Basil figures in the top 100 names for boys nowadays.

Female names: beautiful, or precious?

orange blossom

orange blossom

emerald gemstone large

emerald for Esmeralda

Females can be named for things of beauty, like flowers. Or things that are precious, like jewels.

I seem to remember a jazz singer called Blossom Dearie.
Yes, honestly.

And girls are called Pearl, Ruby, and Beryl.  Also Jade and Amber.

I’m not aware of anyone being called Diamond or Sapphire, though. But emerald is there in Esmeralda. (That was possibly due to the influence of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Damethough the character’s actual name was Agnès. She was nicknamed for the paste emerald she wore when she danced. The name started a fashion, though.)

Female names: a fashion for virtues?

Flowers may be a bit over the top (just my view — feel free to  disagree) but it gets worse. What about naming your female children after virtues? It was a fashion in the Puritan period. A certain Sir Thomas Carew took this to extremes, I think, in the 17th century. His four daughters were named: Patience, Temperance, Silence, Prudence.girl with finger across lips to ask for silence

Silence? He called a child SILENCE?

I suggest that tells us everything we need to know about Sir Thomas Carew and his view of females. I bet he would never have called a boy child “Silence” or anything like it. My reference books don’t record whether he had any male children but, if he went for virtues there, he’d probably have gone for something strong and manly. Perhaps Fortitude Carew?

handsome young man with shirt unbuttoned and arms crossed

Modern-day Fortitude Carew? Or maybe just eye-candy…

Do given names influence behaviour?

Females named after virtues. That’s a story in itself. Oh boy, the virtues we females are/were supposed to embody. In addition to the Carew four, you could try Chastity, Charity, Constance, Clemency… And that’s only the C’s. There are lots more, all the way to Verity.

What does it do to a girl to have a name like Silence? Or Chastity?

Unity Valkyrie Mitford

I can’t help remembering the six Mitford sisters. Five had pretty normal names: Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Jessica, Deborah. And there was also — I kid you not — the outrageously named Unity Valkyrie Mitford.

With a given name like that, is it any wonder she became an avid admirer of Hitler?

HMS Endeavour c. 1794

The only male I can think of who suffered in the same way was the fictional hero of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, who rejoiced (not) in the forename Endeavour. His parents chose it because his mother was a Quaker and his father admired the explorer, Captain James Cook, who had sailed in the ship HMS Endeavour. Parents have a lot to answer for, don’t they?

If you can think of some I’ve missed, please do share.

Joanna Maitland, author


PS On the fraught question of unicorn naming, I’ve decided to go with Nigel, because it seems so very unlikely and (marginally) more appropriate than Basil. Thanks for all your suggestions.head of toy unicorn with no visible eyelashes

PPS My Libertà partner, Sophie, informs me that unicorns always have very long eyelashes, for greater success at virgin-bothering. Sadly, my Nigel has no visible eyelashes so he may go a bit short in the virgin stakes, on account of having nothing to bat at them.
Ah well…

17 thoughts on “Female names : flowers, fashions and faux-pas

  1. Kate Johnson

    I came across a Judge-Not-Lest-Ye-Be-Judged once, from the 1640s I think. And a Fight-The-Good-Fight. And I swear once I found a If-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Wouldst-Have-Been-Damned. Imagine fitting that into an online form…

  2. sophiewestonauthor

    I love TP’s Constable Visit. (Visit-the-Infidel-With-Explanatory-Pamphlets) Not so much a name as a parental Declaration of Intent, poor chap. The Guards are always so kind to him too.

    And the heroine of my Work-in-Progress insisted on being called Verity – and not for the reasons you’d expect.

    1. Joanna Post author

      How could I have forgotten Terry Pratchett? His names are so often a triumph, aren’t they? And Constable Visit is certainly one of those. As for Verity… Sometimes an author just has to go with the name the character insists is hers (or his).

  3. lesley2cats

    I have a Clemency in the book I’m writing at the moment, and I think I’ve used some of the others in the past. Course, there are the Bond Girls, including Solitaire, and I’m sure I’ve come across a Sapphire somewhere…

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’d forgotten Solitaire, Lesley. And if you can remember where your Sapphire occurred, do share. I couldn’t think of one.

      1. Sophie

        Of course! Mr Pooter’s ne’er-do-well son was called Lupin, wasn’t he? I always thought that some odd fancy of Mr Pooter’s. I didn’t realise other poor chaps were stuck with it.

  4. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Loved this post. Names are my thing, so it’s right up my street. I’ve met a Juniper and a Lilac and I know a toddler called Clover.

    I can’t help thinking that Lupin Pooter’s name was an unkind joke on the part of authors, G and W Grossmith. – ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ first appeared in ‘Punch’, after all.

    Re: Puritan names, a poor little foundling girl was christened Misericordia-adulterina in Baltonsborough, Somerset, in 1644. How could the vicar have done that? So cruel.

    1. Joanna Post author

      To us it seems cruel, Elizabeth, but I don’t think the men of the period even considered it, because females were so low in the general scheme of things. I seem to remember (but I may be wrong, so do correct me, if so) that the monument to the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England lists all of the men by name but does not name the women who went with them. Says it all, by saying nothing, doesn’t it?

      And on the subject of Puritan names, I see that the children on the Mayflower included a girl called Humility Cooper and a boy called Resolved White.

  5. Elizabeth Hawksley

    You are right, of course, Joanna. Women are for too often invisible. To give a recent example, Take the Wordsworth Handbook of Kings and Queens. I bought it because I thought it would be helpful. It covers from the entire world from Ancient Egypt to about 1970. Unfortunately, it’s almost worthless because, unless a woman happens to be a queen in her own right, she’s not included.

    For example, it tells me that Alfonso II was Duke of Ferrara from 1559-1597 but omits the fact that he was married to Lucrezia Borgia!

    You want to know who King Edward II married? Forget it – it’s not there. And this is a book originally published by the Oxford University Press in 1989

    1. Joanna Post author

      On the button, Elizabeth.

      Reminds me (dunno why) of a TV programme about the Dukes of Bedford. The heir (Marquess of Tavistock) and his wife were living at Woburn Abbey. The grand portraits in the main rooms were of the current and previous dukes. The Marchioness had put portraits of her ancestors in a side room. She pointed out that her ancestors were, equally, ancestors of dukes to come. But they still didn’t make the main portrait gallery.

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