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Colonial Names: Great New Old Choices

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I was in Williamsburg, Virginia not too long ago, where there was a wonderful show of folk art portraits at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum. I was transfixed by the art, of course, but even more transfixed by the colonial names.

Colonial names never cease to surprise and fascinate me.  Among the many (many many) people named Mary and Elizabeth, Henry and James, there are always several names that are real doozies.

These are names that are mostly rooted in the bible or mythology, but that you just don’t hear much in the modern world.

But that doesn’t mean that many of these colonial names aren’t ripe for revival. A few of the colonial names on this list — notably Mercy, Augustine, and Susannah — are being rediscovered by today’s parents.

The others, well, are they undiscovered gems or mere curiosities? What do you think?

This collection is simply based on the (real) 18th century people pictured in the portrait show.

girls

  • Burneretta — This is not a literally unique name — a few others are findable online — but seems to be an invention.
  • Debrah — Interesting to see that Deborah had spelling variations 300 years ago.
  • Delia — An old-fashioned name with a sleek modern feeling (like Celia), Delia can also be short for Adelia or Cordelia.
  • Dorothea — Coming back along with brother Theodore.
  • Harmony — We might have thought this was invented in the 1960s, but this musical name was used at least two centuries earlier.
  • IveIve, as another spelling of Ivy, or Ive rhyming with hive?
  • Jerusha — The Biblical mother of Jotham has a name that’s rare but definitely usable.
  • Marietta — Pretty as a minuet and perfect for honoring an ancestral Mary.
  • Mercy — Puritan virtue name adopted by Madonna.
  • Polsapianna — The only reference we could find to this name was to its bearer in the portrait, Polsapianna Bull Dorr.
  • Rosabelle — Enchanting alternative to Isabella.
  • Susannah — Nameberry favorite still below the Top 1000.
  • Thryphone — Tryphaina is Greek for softness or delicacy and is noted in the New Testament.
  • Thrypose — The closest proper name we can find is Terpsichore, name of the Greek goddess of dance and muse.
  • Tryal — Mysterious invention, perhaps related to a place or surname.

boys

  • Ammi — Biblical name meaning “my people” borne by famous folk artist Ammi Phillips, now suited best for girls.
  • Amos — Wonderful Biblical name deserving of revival.
  • Asa — Means “born in the morning” and usable for girls or boys. Pronunciation is ay-sah, with a soft s.
  • Asahel — Too much teasing potential.
  • Augustine — Descendant of the Latin Augustus that’s stylish but not yet in the Top 1000.
  • Calvin — Too redolent of religion or jeans for some, but we think it’s got potential.
  • Erastus — A Biblical name that means “beloved,” Erastus is one of those quintessentially old-fashioned names people like to make fun of but it might rise again.
  • Everard — Definite potential as a relative of the Eva/Everett contingent.
  • Florin — Usually a masculine name from the Latin Florinus, meaning flower, but perfectly lovely for a girl.
  • Florus — Another Florinus derivative that’s traditionally male but works for girls.
  • Fredolin — Unusual relative of Frederick.
  • Micah — Name of a Biblical prophet that can make a sleek update for the tired Michael.
  • Reuben — Underappreciated Biblical name with a rich sound.
  • Seth — Neglected name that could rise along with gentle Biblical brothers like Joshua.
  • Sturtevant — Early Dutch surname name that means “leap forward”
  • Zedekiah — Old Testament king’s name with modern nickname Zed.

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