• Sarah von Allmen

A name to live up to

Updated: May 14

While all names have a meaning, in the past some were apparently given to children in order to encourage them towards a better way of life: these are technically known as hortatory names, but we could also describe them as aspirational or inspirational.


My first examples come from the Puritans, who – in common with various other religious denominations over the years - rejected “worldly” names in favour of those found in the Bible. Although some Old Testament names are admittedly a bit of a mouthful (Hezekiah, Zerubbabel, Rehoboam, etc), many others are still in use today, and Daniel, Joshua, Ruth, Miriam and so forth wouldn’t be out of place in any modern English-speaking primary school.


However, some Puritans took this a step further and baptised their male children with a kind of motto or religious slogan: Fear-God, Abuse-Not, Kill-Sin, Fly-Fornication, Aid-on-High, and of course the infamous If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned. (I can’t help wondering what his friends shouted to get his attention – “Iffy”?) A variant on this was names which illustrated the sins and tribulations of the world, such as Vanity, Forsaken, Lament and Humiliation.


Fortunately, they also adopted “abstract virtue” names, principally for girls. Although Sapience, Wisdom, Tenacious and Diffidence are admittedly pretty awful, the Puritans still bequeathed to us a slew of attractive names with a positive meaning: Grace, Joy, Constance, and Verity to name but a few. At a time when surviving triplet births were uncommon and (understandably) regarded as near-miraculous, female triplets were often given the names Faith, Hope and Charity, from the King James translation of 1 Corinthians 13:13 – in my opinion a massive improvement on the male equivalent of Meschach, Shadrach and Abednego!


All this led me to wonder how long some of the less common abstract virtue names survived, and with the help of FreeBMD’s transcription of the GRO index[i], the latest examples I discovered were:

  • Abstinence 1849

  • Blessed 1866

  • Merciful 1876

  • Piety 1885

  • Obedience 1924

  • Moral 1930

  • Silence 1943

  • Modesty 1968

  • Chastity 1986

  • Truth 1988

Surprised? I was!


Rather later, certain Victorian parents gave their children names above their social station in an attempt to encourage them to better themselves. The mildest version of this phenomenon was the adoption by working-class families of aristocratic names such as Algernon and Montague, but we also find titles, military ranks, and “desirable” occupations used as forenames.


Using FreeBMD again, the titles I found included:

  • Prince

  • Princess

  • Earl

  • Count

  • Countess

  • Lord

  • Baron

  • Squire

Birth registrations included royal and noble children, but I very much doubt that Princess Bertha Rowland of Bury or Prince Abner Whitaker of Keighley had royal blood in their veins.


The name Squire was particularly popular in the north of England, while Earl found more lasting favour in America.


Among the military ranks given as forenames were:

  • General

  • Colonel

  • Major

  • Captain

  • Adjutant

  • Sergeant

  • Corporal

Corporal made me smile: it doesn’t seem very ambitious compared to some of the higher ranks, but maybe he was named after a particular corporal who had played a part in his parents’ life?


The group of favoured occupations is a little more nuanced, as some occupations were also surnames, and may have been given to a child to honour a family member. However, others were definitely used to encourage a child to aim high in life, and names which fit into this group include:

  • Doctor

  • Vicar

  • Monk

  • Judge

  • Mayor

  • Mayoress

Like Squire, Doctor was a north of England favourite, but my own vote has to go to the wonderfully named Rector Vickers, born in Oldham in 1888!

[i] https://www.freebmd.org.uk/

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