Female Names in the Upper New River Valley of North Carolina, 1700's to about 1850
A Very Brief History of Names in England and America
Naming Conventions and Spelling in the Upper New River Valley
Short List of Names

Prior to the 5th century A.D., the island of Britain was inhabited by the Celtic people, whose languages survive today only in parts of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany (a peninsula in northwestern France). The long decline of the Celtic languages began around the year 450 A.D., when Britain was invaded by Germanic tribes known collectively as the Anglo-Saxons. These people came from the coastal regions of north-central Europe and spoke various dialects that are in the same family as modern German and Dutch.

What scholars call "Old English" was the dominant language in Anglo-Saxon Britain around the 10th century. It was basically the dialect of the powerful tribe known as the West Saxons, with many words borrowed from Scandinavian languages and Church Latin. Although Old English is the ancestor of modern English, it is virtually incomprehensible to modern English speakers. Among other things, its grammar is extremely complicated -- much worse than modern German, which is bad enough, if you have ever tried to learn it. Click
here to hear the Lord's Prayer in Old English.

The Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic tribes were a warlike people, and the names they gave their children reflected it.  Girls as well as boys had names that evoked qualities of power, strength, and victory in battle.  "Gertrude," for example, comes from the words
ger (spear) and trud (strength).  Other word roots found in Anglo-Saxon female names include: 

Words relating to war, power, strength: adel / aethel (noble), aelf (supernatural being), beorn (bear), burg / borg (fortification), brun (armor), eber (wild boar), far (travel), gard (guard, enclosure), ger (spear), gith (strife), grim (mask), gund (strife), hard (strong, brave), helm (helmet), hild (battle), hlod or hrod (famous), hros (horse), kuni (brave), meht (might), mund (protection), muot (spirit, courage), ric (power), sige (victory), swith (strength), theud (tribe, people), thrid or trud (strength), wig (war), wulf (wolf).  Examples: Aethelhild (noble + battle, >Ethel), Brunhild (armor + battle), Cunigund (brave + strife), Eberhild (wild boar + battle), Ermagard (entire + guard >Emma), Hildegard (battle + guard), Theodhild (people + battle).
Words relating to happiness, prosperity, riches: ead (riches), gifu (gift), frid (peace), od (prosperity), sunne (sun), wyn (joy).  Examples: Eadwyn (riches + joy), Eadthrid (riches + strength, >Edith), Fridaswith (peace + strength), Sunhild (sun + battle), Winifred (joy + peace), Wulfwyn (wolf + joy).
Words relating to fertility and feminine qualities: Eastre (a fertility goddess), cwen (white, fair, blessed), lind (tender, weak), mild (gentle), wif (wife, woman).  Examples: Cwenhild (fair + battle), Estrilda (Eastre + battle), Godwife (good + wife), Mildthryth (gentle + strength, >Mildred), Siegelind (victory + tender).

The Anglo-Saxons ruled England until 1066 A.D., when they were conquered by the Normans from France. The Normans were actually the descendants of Vikings who had conquered territory inhabited by the Franks (French) and adopted their language.  The Franks, in turn, were a Germanic tribe who gained control of the former Roman province of Gaul (modern France) around the 5th century A.D.  The French language is one of several languages that evolved from Latin after the fall of the Roman empire.  Other "Romance" (Roman) languages include Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian.

French was spoken by the ruling classes in England for three hundred years after the Norman invasion. It was not until 1399 that a native English speaker (Henry IV) took the throne. Meanwhile, the language of the common people gradually evolved into "Middle English," a fusion of Old English and Norman French.  To modern English speakers, Middle English is unfamiliar yet more or less comprehensible, despite large differences in vocabulary and pronunciation.  The complex grammar of Old English was greatly simplified, and many French words were added to the vocabulary.  This process resulted in a rich variety of synonyms, some words having Germanic roots, others French, for example:
German French English
Kinder Enfant Child, infant
Fühlen Sentir Feel, sense
Fechten Bataille Fight, battle
Fliehen Échapper Flee, escape
Gott Dieu God, diety
Haus Maison House, mansion
König Roi King, royalty
Sehen Voir See, view
Schaf Mouton Sheep, mutton
Schauern Trembler Shiver, tremble
Sprache Langage Speech, language
Strom Rivière Stream, river
Denken Raissoner Think, reason
"Modern" English, according to the scholars, emerged around the time of Shakespeare, in the 16th century.  However, this is based on grammatical and other linguistic features, not necessarily the ease with which a modern English speaker can read Hamlet.

By the Middle Ages, the people of England were separated by many centuries from their roving, tribal ancestors.  They no longer had much interest in naming their little girls "strong spear," much less "wild boar."  Instead, most girls received the name of a queen, saint, or Biblical figure, such as  Elizabeth, Joan, Margaret, Anne, Alice, Agnes, Mary, Jane, Katherine, Dorothy, Eleanor, and Susan.  Though a wide variety of Anglo-Saxon names were still in use, they were becoming increasingly rare.

In general, people in the Middle Ages were very conservative when it came to choosing names for their children. The majority of the population shared the same, relatively small handful of names. They did, however, invent a huge number of nicknames for the most common names, like Mary and Elizabeth.  Some of these nicknames are still in use today (e.g., Molly, Polly, Eliza, Beth, Bess), while others seemm downright strange (e.g., Molot, Pollekin, Elisota). 

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, which is known as the "Classical Revival" period in English literature, the English took to new, exotic names the way American parents took to "Brittany" and "Caitlin" in 1990's.  A flurry of new names entered the language during the Classical Revival period, such as Belinda, Diana, Malvina, Parthenia, and Sophronia.  Some of these names came from ancient Greek and Roman mythology.  Some were contemporary Italian names, and others were invented outright.  Shakespeare is perhaps the best known writer to coin new names and to borrow freely from classical sources, but he was not the first, or the last, to do so.  Even some Anglo-Saxon names were revived during this period as a result of interest in ancient legends. 

With one important exception -- the Puritans -- the English colonists in America used the same sorts of names that were common in England during the 1600's and 1700's: a mixture of the traditional (which favored names of saints and royalty), and the innovative (largely inspired by popular literature). The Puritans, however, eschewed both tradition and fashion. The Puritans adhered to a strict religious philosophy that required them to lead a purely Christian life. Certainly no self-respecting Puritan would name his daughter after a pagan goddess, or, for that matter, a corrupt aristocrat.  Puritan children received the sturdy names of Biblical characters, abstract virtues, and even Christian slogans.

Fortunately, the Puritans' most burdensome names, like "Fly-Fornication," rather quickly died out. But others remained popular for generations. American women with names like Biddy (Obedience), Huldah, Dorcas, and Drusilla could thank their Puritan ancestors for the favor. Some Biblical names that were adopted by the Puritans have remained American standards to this day. It surprises many Americans to learn that Ruth, Rebecca, Martha, and other common American names are fairly unusual in England.


German immigrants were probably responsible for several unusual names found in the American South, including Elzina, Jincy (Jensine) and Almedia (Almetta). These names were used in Germany, but not in England or Scotland, as far as I have been able to determine. Similarly, the Scotch-Irish may have brought the name Mazy (Maisie), which is a Scottish nickname for Margaret.  (However, it is also possible that "Mazy" was a nickname for "Mary Elizabeth.")

Unfortunately, the Scotch-Irish and German settlers used many of the same names as the English ("Elizabeth" is a good example), and subtle differences in spelling and pronunciation quickly disappeared. As a result, it is difficult to say how much these two ethnic groups influenced American naming patterns. This is particularly true in places like the Upper New River Valley of North Carolina, where the English, Germans, and Scotch-Irish intermarried and were completely mixed within a couple of generations.

The Appalachian dialect in general is said to have many Scotch-Irish features. (See, e.g., Alan Crozier, "The Scotch-Irish Influence on American English,"
American Speech 59 [1984]: 310-31; Wylene Dial, "The Dialect of the Appalachian People," West Virginia History 30 [1969]: 463-71.)

The Scotch-Irish were mostly English-speaking Scots from lowland (southern) Scotland who moved to northern Ireland in the early 1600's to escape religious persecution.  Unlike the Highland Scots and native Irish, the Scotch-Irish used few, if any, given names of Celtic origin.


Some unusual names may be the result of the inhabitants' Southern accents. Even today, people in certain parts of the country put an "R" in the middle of words like "wash" ("warsh"). This habit may explain names like Ferby (Phoebe), Artelia (Adelia), Permelia (Pamela), and Perlina (Paulina).

Southerners are also famous for inventing names. This custom did not really take off until the late 19th century, but there are earlier examples. Female names were often coined by combining syllables from other names, or taking a syllable from one name and adding a feminine suffix such as -ella, -etta, -ina, or -inda.


There are a handful of names in the Upper New River Valley that are difficult to explain. These curious names are often associated with the "Melungeons," an Appalachian ethnic group that is believed to descend from Native Americans who intermarried with sailors from the Spanish and Portuguese voyages of exploration. (For more information, visit
The Melungeon Heritage Association). A word of caution, however: many Latinate names are perfectly common English or German names that have been around for hundreds of years (e.g., Felicia, Cecilia). Other "exotic" names actually come from the Bible (Mahala, Kezzia) or have literary roots (Elvira, Fatima, Safronia).  It is also possible that an unusual name is a fanciful nickame or an outright invention.
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Copyright 2002 by Rebecca Moon