As mentioned previously, I’m working in the genealogy section of the library these days. Currently I’m typing up death records from the 1880s-90s.
It’s cool seeing all the old names.
Most are still familiar a century later: Mary, Peter, Sarah, William, Joseph, Daniel, etc. Some have alternate spellings that are much less common now: Catherine/Catharine, Elizabeth/Elisabeth.
But there are a lot of strange ones.
Here, for your viewing pleasure, I’ve collected the most unusual and interesting first names I’ve encountered as I worked through 3,000+ records. All of these belonged to people lived in Ohio, though not all were born here.
- Mahitable – female, Biblical. Variant of Mehetabel, who was the wife of an obscure king in Genesis.
- Philemon – male, Biblical. Received one of St. Paul’s letters.
- Hattie – female, seems to be a variant of Harriet.
- Lucretia – female, based on a figure in Roman history and/or legend.
- Theodosia – female, possibly based on a 7th-century Byzantine saint. Also a genus of beetle, so, you know, there’s that.
- Absalom – male, Biblical. Son of King David.
- Cora – female, pulled from Greek mythology. I like it mainly for other reasons.
- Ebenezer – not just for Scrooges anymore.
- Effie – one for the Hunger Games fans. (I’m one of you. Shh…tell no one.)
- Folly – really?
- Delilah – besides being the love of the Biblical Samson, she’s also the subject of one of my favorite songs.
- Lather – somebody’s mother really likes soap?
- Lemuel – male, Biblical. A king mentioned in Proverbs.
- Dayton – good name for an Ohioan!
- Bertha – actually means “bright one,” but today, pretty much just means “fat.” The association seems to date back to World War I, when a type of German mortar was named the Big Bertha. Kind of unfortunate, as it’s an otherwise perfectly good name.
- Enoch – male, Biblical. Ancestor of Noah.
- Hiram – male, Biblical. Shows up a lot in old records.
- Rollin – they see him Rollin, they hatin’…no? I’ll be quiet now.
- Actions – this is a really good name.
- Flay – this is a really scary name.
- Ephraim – male, Biblical. Mentioned in Genesis.
- Jemima – you thought this name was just for syrup, didn’t you? Well, now it is. It used to be for people.
- Ambrose – I’ve heard of this one! Ambrose Bierce. I’m proud of myself. Also, Ambrose Burnside is the origin of the term “sideburns.” No, I am not joking. Go look at him. Guy’s a legend.
- Drucilla – I was pretty pumped about this one, but then, I am a bit of a Buffy fanatic.
- Radcliffe – not just for Daniel anymore.
- Lyman – I only know this one from old Garfield strips.
- Tryphena – female, Biblical.
- Orange – hey, orange you glad you didn’t make any dumb jokes about this one?
- Bass – I’m all about this name. Ha, do you get it? Because…sigh.
- Augustus – sweet name, but I bet other kids made fun of him.
- Augusliss – I don’t know what happened with this one. It’s like they were going to name the kid Augustus, but panicked at the last minute?
- Inez – a variant of Agnes.
- Uriah – male, Biblical.
- Reason – a good name for a Vulcan.
- Patience – a good name for anyone still reading this list.
- Bessie – pretty much just for cows now. I’m not sure why.
- Etna – do you hope your daughter will be a fan of active volcanoes? This is your way of saying, “You can do it, honey!”
- Florida – might be friends with Orange.
- Nevada – still a better name than Idaho.
- Winnie – a perfectly good name until A. A. Milne ruined it for everyone.
- Fanny – variant of Frances. This is an interesting one, actually. Here in the U.S., “fanny” is an inoffensive and old-timey word for “butt.” In Britain, I have learned, it’s a much more offensive term for “vulva.” (Similar to the situation with “spaz,” which also has wildly different meanings on opposite sides of the Atlantic.) Both meanings of “fanny” seem to derive from the character Fanny Hill in the early, infamous pornographic novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. In any case, people apparently stopped naming their kids this once it started to mean “butt.”
- Felix – means “lucky.”
- Mildred – still familiar today, but definitely sounds like an older name.
- Granvil – allegedly means “big town.” Like gran(d) vil(lage), I guess.
- Ursula – the name comes from a legendary saint and means “little bear,” but today it has other associations.
- Delight – this is a cool enough name on its own, but I have to mention that the first time I encountered it, the woman’s full name was Delight Beard. That is, without a doubt, one of the greatest names of all time. It’s right up there with another woman I found in the records, Carrie Carrey (who was unmarried, meaning her parents called her that on purpose). I also knew of a guy at my old job named Thor Bruno, which is similarly high up in the hall of fame.
- Mamie – President Eisenhower’s wife was named this, too.
- Silas – makes me think of Silas Marner, a novel that I started reading, and then, uh, stopped reading.
- Ada – an excellent name. Ada Lovelace was the world’s first programmer.
- Hyman – a male name, no longer used, for obvious reasons. It’s derived, however, from the Hebrew “Haim,” and seems to be unrelated to “hymen,” which has its origins in Greek.
- Merlyn – a great name.
And finally, who could forget…
Yes, there really were men named Philander, back in the day.
Have you ever wondered why “philanderer” and “philanthropist” sound similar, but mean such different things? Okay, probably not. But it turns out, it’s not a coincidence, and the meanings aren’t as different as they seem.
See, “phil” means “loving,” and “andr”/”anthr” means “man” or “mankind.” So a philanthropist is someone who loves mankind. Philander, as a name, used to mean something similar. But then it morphed into the other meaning of loving, er, mankind, and after that, people started picking different names for their baby boys.
Which is funny, considering how many babies exist solely because of philandering.
That’s, uh, that’s all I’ve got for now. Who knew working in a library could be so educational?
Some of these names remind me of things.
In The Golden Bowl, Henry James had a character named Fanny Assingham. Really. And he wasn’t kidding.
Some songs: Lather (Jefferson Airplane); Bertha (Grateful Dead)
When I was growing up (and maybe even now), Quakers sometimes had girls named Patience (and Faith and Hope and Charity).
Delight was the original name of Delirium in the Sandman comic book.
There’s an Inez in Inherent Vice (a very minor character).
I’m glad I’m not named Dimmit. It’s like halfway between damnit and dimwit.
I was thinking that about Dimmit too. 🙂