Colonial Names: Great New Old Choices

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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24 Responses to “Colonial Names: Great New Old Choices”

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Elizabeth Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 6:11 am

Erastus was the middle name of one of my great-great-grandfathers.

Km903 Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 7:38 am

I knew a Jerusha growing up. She seemed to have minor pronunciation problems when meeting new people, but nothing too terrible.

Sereann Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 8:58 am

wow!

sadiesadie Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 9:02 am

Wow great list. Thanks. I love old and mainly unused names. I really don’t know why Seth isn’t used more.

Andrea Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 9:45 am

One of my many times great-grandfathers was a Revolutionary War soldier named Shubael or Shubal, depending on how it was transcribed. I believe it is a Biblical name as well. The family tree also includes a Tryphena (the way it is transcribed in the records, though probably the same name as Tryphaina) and Hephzibahs, Jareds and Jerushas as well as the more typical Sarah, Abigail, Hannah, Abraham, Timothy, Reuben. One 18th century ancestor was named Eliphalet and I have no idea if that is Biblical.

There were also quite a few Puritan virtue names. One of my great-great-great grandmothers was Wait, nicknamed Waitie, and another was Experience.

Auntie A Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 11:29 am

Great list! I have a cousin named Micah (11 yrs. old), a friend with the Susanna spelling, another friend with Susanna as her middle name (both 17), & I know two Seth’s (both about 19)!

I like Delia (as a nn for Cordelia), Mercy, Harmony, Rosabelle, Susanna/h, Amos, Micah, Seth, and Reuben!

Ruth Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 11:55 am

My oldest sister is named Jerusha!! The ones I like are: Rosabelle, Susannah, Delia, Ive, Seth, Calvin, Everard, Reuben.

Macy Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Why would Ammi be best suited for girls now? Ridiculous statement. If Amari can be popular for boys, so can Ammi.

Oh and Asa is NOT unisex! Jesus christ.

Funny how nearly all the boy ones are “usable for girls”, yet none of the girl names had the comment “usable for boys”.

pam Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Macy, I welcome your opinions but not your tone. Nameberry is considerate and respectful, and our policy is that everyone maintain that level of discourse.

lanada Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 12:15 pm

@Andrea: Yes, Eliphalet is Biblical. He was one of King David’s many sons.

I sometimes wonder how people think of names like Polsapianna. Maybe it’s like the colonial equivalent of Tyquacia or Sh’naynay, and the parents just liked the sound of it. Go figure.

guest Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 12:34 pm

I think Tryal is supposed to be Trial. They used weird spellings back then.

SJ Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Could Tryal – be Trial – more like a virtue name? Also, colonials were quite into greek names and greek history as latin and greek were well studied and translated in schools.

Emmy Jo Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Regarding unisex names: For what it’s worth, I think Ive and Tryal from the girls’ list would work equally well on girls or boys (which isn’t to say they’d work particularly well on either gender). Ive reminds me of Ike and sounds like a potential nickname for Ivan.

My husband’s grandmother is Floris, which I guess would be the girl version of Florus — the “-us” ending does seem decidedly masculine.

My favorites from this list are definitely Susannah and Calvin. I also like Dorothea, Mercy, Reuben, and Seth.

jess Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 3:30 pm

I also thought that Tryal was a variation of Trial. Maybe it was a difficult pregnancy or birth, and baby’s name reflected that.

spotlightstarlit Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I just love the names Seth and Mercy, I think they are beautiful!

kalstin Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 9:16 pm

How about Deliverance or Humility – two choices I discovered while looking through various branches of our family tree.

Elle Says:

January 13th, 2011 at 11:09 pm

I actually know three guys named Seth! They are 32, 28 and 21. So this name doesn’t feel too underused to me.

So many great names on this list!

Delia is lovely but I think the catalog store association makes people not want to use it.

Dorothea is lovely and my husband had a grandmother named Dorothy but I love Theodora just a little more!

Marietta is lots of fun!

I LOVE Susannah! There are a lot of “anna” names in my family tree so I thought using Susannah would cover them all.

Amos is fantastic! But lots of people have that Famous Amos connection.

Asa is a wonderfully strong Biblical name. This one is growing on me.

Augustine is cool but I actually like Augustus better.

Calvin is a great name…I also think of Calvin and Hobbes :o)

Everard is such a manly name but I worry about people being about to pronounce it. I also love it for the “ev” connection with my husband’s name (Evan).

My sister in law is dating an ex-Amish fellow named Reuben. We call him Ruby :o)

Zedekiah is so cool! Love the Zed nickname. Strong and manly!

Joy Says:

January 14th, 2011 at 10:33 pm

I’d like to point out that Harmony is a virtue name, in addition to its musical meaning.

Jessica Says:

January 16th, 2011 at 10:15 pm

I love Puritan names: virtues for the girls (Mercy, Charity, Ruth), prophets for the boys (Jonah, Amos, Ezekiel).

strangeasang3ls Says:

February 24th, 2011 at 12:47 pm

I also have several Tryphenas in my family tree (and Waites), and I found this when I looked up the name: “Tryphena of Rome is a Christian woman mentioned in Romans 16:12 of the Bible (“Salute Tryphena and Tryphosa, who labour in the Lord.” KJV)”
“Thrypose” sounds like a misspelling or misinterpretation of Tryphosa (like Orpah/Oprah)

debbie Says:

April 21st, 2011 at 5:39 am

Love all the old names. I have a distant grandmother(1700) first name was Hopestill!!

Chris Says:

May 22nd, 2011 at 9:49 am

Everard? Are you serious? This is a dirty-snigger, nudge nudge, know what I mean sort of name. In the UK it’s associated with Larry Grayson, a camp comedian whose act often referred to a character named Everard.

dzithendo Says:

September 3rd, 2012 at 2:11 am

My great-whatever grandmother was name Comfort Riggs. She married Thomas Cotton and became Comfort Cotton.

iwillpraise Says:

December 13th, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Wow – some great family names from the Berries!!

@ Andrea/ strangeasang3ls/ kalstin – Experience, Wait, Deliverance and Humility very cool to hear! Altho, I must say, having been through several waiting periods in my life, waiting is a great virtue, but very very hard and that would be an extremely difficult name to bear!
@ debbie – I have heard of Hopestill before and it is one of the most pleasant virtue names!! Hopestill and Heartsong are my absolute favorites!!
@ Joy – I agree. Harmony is a virtue name as well as a musical one! Thank you for that insight!
@ strangeasang3ls – yes, I often think about that. and to all the other Berries who stated that Tryal was probably from the “virtue” Trial – that’s the first thing I thought too.
@ dzithendo – Comfort Cotton, wow. In a way that is kinda cool, but I don’t know that the world we live in today would be too forgiving…. brings to mind a girl I once knew named Candy who was dating a guy with the last name Lemon; we used to joke that if they ever got married she’d be Candy Lemon 🙂 ….another couple I knew – no joke – was Herb Kelly and Kelly Herb. I believe they did get married….!

~ Jerusha Clark is a Christian author – she was the first Jerusha I ever heard of or have heard of since!
~ I like Delia and LOVE Susannah. She is a huge crush of mine! I mean total fan of it!!
~ Amos is Biblical, yes, but also very Amish.
~ Fredolin = Frederick meets mandolin, but I could totally get behind Florin (for a girl) <3
~ I know a sibset: Caleb, Micah and Seth – funny that you've mentioned 2 of the 3 here
~ I've always loved Reuben and even the Rubin spelling (probably bc Corbin is one of my favorite names of all time!!).
~ Sturtevant was the surname of twin sisters I went to school with; it's a rare name that stands out, cool to hear its origin and meaning!

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