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Names that are older than you think

MEDIEVAL EUROPE —  Do you guys ever sit around thinking about the Middle Ages or is that just me?  I tend to go through cycles of what I’m into reading over the course of the year, from dragons to futuristic space to Victorian politics to fairies to World War II spies and then back again.  Currently we’re in a think-about-the-kings-and-queens-of-olde phase, which means I’m used to reading names like Eleanor, Agnes, Maud, Henry, William, and Robert.  Funny how the dudes’ names stayed popular…

At any rate, those are names that just sound right for their context.  I expect to see Queen Alviva.  I’m unsurprised at the plucky serving maid named Matilda and her best gal pal Sarah.  It’s unsurprising to see Prince Edward ride off to do battle, accompanied by his squire Hugo.  I already know those names are old, it isn’t ahistorical for them to show up in medieval times.  But if someone tried to write a novel about Princess Tiffany and her secret boyfriend Travis and told me those are valid medieval names, I might throw down a glove and offer up a duel.

But then I’d just look silly, because of course they’re absolutely medieval names.  It’s something I’m not sure we necessarily think about, that all our names have to have started somewhere.  It’s easier to recognize some names (like Ruth, for example) as being Old, because we know they show up in Old stories, like the Bible.  But would you really expect to see Jennifer on an 800-year-old headstone?

It’s a bit tricky, because historically our ability to spell names has not been great.  Part of that was down to people just not being overly educated, part of it is down to names from one language or culture being adopted by another who then has to figure out how to write it down, and part of it seems to just be down to vibes and however people were feeling that day.  For example, King Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was originally christened Catalina, but when she moved to England she began writing her name as Katherine.  However, she often signed letters and documents Katharina, Katerine, and Katharine, while in Spain they continued spelling everything with a ‘C’ and she was just fine with that.  Now we often write it as ‘Catherine’ to help differentiate from Katherine Parr, one of his other wives.  Name spelling often came down to however the parish priest wanted to spell it, since they were the only ones in the area who could spell, so if a Smith was born in one parish and died in another, their name might morph to Smythe.

Okay so with that out of the way, how old is Tiffany?  Depending on how serious you want to be, you could argue that it goes way back to 324 CE in the form of the name Theophania, a Greek name meaning something along the lines of ‘God’s appearance’.  It existed in that form for a long time, making its way through Late Latin before eventually being pulled into Old French as ‘Tifinie’, meaning ‘Epiphany’.  The French later spelled it ‘Tiphanie’.  By 1600, the English did what they do best: take French words and claim them for their own.  The name Tiffany, with that spelling, was in use.  In addition to being a name, it also became a kind of light, silky gauze.

Maybe it was from the fabric that the name made the jump to being a surname, though I can’t prove that.  At any rate, we know that the first Tiffany in America was a fellow named Humphrey Tiffany, who arrived in the 1600s but was killed by lightning, an event that was immortalized in a crummy little limerick.  Poor guy was on a date at the time.

But the most influential Tiffany in American history wasn’t born until February 15, 1812.  That was when one Charles Lewis Tiffany came into this world, and he would go on to found Tiffany & Co. in New York City.  The name was a slow-burn in popularity after that, though it caught the attention of author Truman Capote in 1958.  He wrote a book, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which launched a surge of interest in the name (and forced the jewelry company to add a cafe to their site, because so many folks wanted to eat breakfast there).  A few years later in 1961, the film starring Audrey Hepburn came out, and when the kids who watched that in theaters grew up, they named their daughters for the iconic movie, leading to a surge of Tiffanys in the 1980s.

Travis follows a similar path, at least until we get to the jewelry store bit.  It probably has its origins in the Roman empire, as ‘transversare’, which means ‘to cross’.  It was probably an occupational name for toll collectors at bridges.  The name made its way through the years to old French again, with modifications in spelling but still meaning essentially the same thing.  Once again, the English claimed it for their own, with the surname ‘Travers’ first showing up in the 12th century in Lancashire, England.  Other variations included Travas, Traves, Travers, and… Travis.  We know that there were Travises aboard the ships from England and Ireland in the 1600s, bound for the Americas for religious, political, or economic reasons.  They show up in Walter, Edward, another Walter, and Thomas Travis who all landed in Virginia between 1637-1666.

Oh and Jennifer?  That’s mythologically old.  The roots of that name go all the way back to proto-Celtic languages, but its best attestation is in the Welsh Gwenhwyfar.  For those of you familiar with Arthurian legend, you may recall that his wife and queen was Guinevere.  That’s just the not-Welsh way to spell Gwenhwyfar, and the version that the English were better able to handle.  It did go through a few variations, including the Cornish Gwennever.  Side note, King Arthur was actually a Welsh hero, not English.  Except he was actually a Britonic hero, a Celtic warlord fighting back against the chaos that enveloped the region when the Romans dipped in 410 CE.  That is, if he existed at all, the story is over 1500 years old. I did a whole column on the guy in 2022, it’s on our website, go check it out.

The point is, his wife was Guinevere, and the romance of their story led to that becoming a popular name for women in medieval England.  Funnily enough, the Englishers at the time did have words that looked a lot more like Jennifer in spelling, including ‘jenefer’ and ‘jinifer’, but those are actually words for the juniper plant that was used to flavor the alcohol we all know and love as gin.  Nothing to do with the name of a woman.

All good things must come to an end, and eventually Guinevere and Gwennever fell out of fashion.  They were barely-there names for a long time, popping up every now and then when a set of parents wanted to be cool and quirky, but it wasn’t common at all., so it’s hard to tell when it morphed into our modern spelling.  In fact, a play released in the early 1900s (“The Doctor’s Dilemma” by George Bernard Shaw) included a character named Jennifer and it was actively commented on in the play as being a strange name.  But that was not the case for much longer— Shaw’s play made it to Broadway in 1915, and the name began to climb the American charts from there.  By 1938 it was in the top 1000 names, twenty years later it was in the top 100.  And it has stayed there for a long time, only dropping out of the top 100 in 2009, and still in the top 500.

There are plenty of other ‘modern’ names with origins older than you might think.  Jason is the anglicized spelling of the Greek name Iásōn, a hero of ancient mythology.  Dustin stems from the Old Norse Þorsteinn, ‘Þor’ being the god Thor and ‘steinn’ meaning ‘stone’ (for help with the letter ‘Þ’, check out the WDYKAT “A thorny dillemma” on our website). Jessica and Miranda aren’t quite as old, but as far as we know they were made up by Shakespeare himself.  The name Gary has been around since at least 1200. Stephanie (and Stephen) comes from the Greek word ‘stephanos’ meaning ‘crown’, and has been used as a name since as early as 868 CE.  Chloe comes from ancient Greek, and was added to the goddess Demeter’s name as an epiphet meaning ‘green shoot’.  It has the same root as the word ‘chlorophyll’, and has been used as an English name since the 1500s.

The point is, names are weird and old, and language is weird and old and now I kinda want someone to write me an entire historical fiction novel about a squad with exclusively 80s names going out and taking down the baddies.