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Dictionary Baby Names: Alpha to Webster

By Clare Green

We’ll soon be celebrating  US Dictionary Day. This unofficial holiday falls on the October 16th birthday of the Founding Father of American English, Noah Webster – this year he’d be celebrating his 260th.

In honor of the occasion, here are ten baby names inspired by dictionaries and the people who shaped them – arranged alphabetically, of course.

ALPHA Where would any dictionary be without the alphabet? (At least, for languages that use an alphabet.) The word derives from the first two Greek letters, alpha and beta. Alpha is used as a name far more than Beta. A hundred years ago it was mainly used for girls, but today most kids called Alpha are boys.

Other names for alphabet-lovers include letter-names, like Delta and Elif, and Abcde (pronounced “Absidy”), given to 6 girls last year.

BEE When he standardized (not standardised) American English spelling, Noah Webster was indirectly responsible for spelling bee competitions, where schoolchildren go head-to-head to spell ever more elaborate words. Past spelling bee winners have had some pretty great names.

Surprisingly, this tiny insect name hasn’t charted for girls or boys since 2000 – but there may be more people called Bee out there than the statistics show. It can be a nickname for Beatrice, Bianca, or more or less any name beginning with B – or even Melissa, if you’re thinking of the name’s meaning.

 CHARLOTTE Charlotte Yonge is the grand matriarch of baby name writing. Her History of Christian Names was one of the earliest name books, and every baby name book on your shelf (or shelves, for many of us) is a small part of its legacy. As well as being a proto-name-nerd, she was a sub-editor on the Oxford English Dictionary, and is one of the most-quoted female novelists in it.

Charlotte is as popular today as it was in Victorian times, ranking #7 in the US and Top 20 in the UK. If you’re looking for a name that’s loved by many parents and has special meaning to name lovers, this is it.

ETHELWYN Ethelwyn Steane was a long-term editorial assistant on the Oxford English Dictionary. She worked there for 30 years, and even met her husband there – co-workers gave them a copy of the Dictionary as a wedding present.

Born in the 1870s, her name is a prime example of the 19th-century revival of Anglo-Saxon and other ancient names. It comes from the Old English words æthel (“noble”) and wynn (“joy”) – and of course Ethel and Wynn can be used as names in their own right, too.

GREENLEAF Noah Webster married Rebecca Greenleaf in 1789, and they used her maiden name as a middle name for two of their children.

Although it’s never been in the charts, it has occasionally been used as a first name – an example is Greenleaf Whittier Pickard, the radio pioneer. It has a strong nature vibe, and an air of fantasy: Tolkien fans may know that it’s a translation of the name Legolas. (Tolkien himself worked on the Oxford English Dictionary. Among his contributions was the entry for the walrus.)

LEXI Lexicography is the act of compiling dictionaries – its root is the Greek lexis, meaning “word”. So how about a soundalike Lex-name? Lexi is the most popular today, and others include Lexus, Lexine, Lexa, and straightforward Lex.

And if Lexi has a sister? She could be Etta or Molly from etymology, the study of word origins.

MERRIAM Brothers George and Charles Merriam ran a printing and bookselling company and inherited the rights to Noah Webster’s Dictionary after his death. Today, Merriam-Webster is the archetypal American dictionary publisher.

The origins of this surname are uncertain – it may be from a place name, or the word Merry. It’s only ever charted for girls in the US, maybe because of the similarity to Miriam, but it could work for boys too.

MURRAY James Augustus Henry Murray was the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, the monumental authority on the history of word usage in the English language. Murray was an impressive figure (with an equally impressive beard), contributing vast amounts of material to the Dictionary in the 30+ years of his life he devoted to it.

Murray was also an impressive namer: his children – who all got drafted into working on the Dictionary – were Harold, Ethelbert, Wilfrid, Oswyn, Hilda, Ethelwyn (yes, another Ethelwyn!), Aelfric, Elsie, Rosfrith, Jowett, and Gwyneth.

This surname name is in the Top 100 in its native Scotland, but has been long neglected in the States…until now? Murray had its heyday in the 1920s and is just starting to show signs of revival. With 52 boys given the name in 2017, it’s the most popular it’s been for almost 40 years.

SAMUEL This classic biblical name is many things to many people. Here it honors Samuel Johnson, the heavyweight scholar whose Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755, was hugely influential.

Samuel has never been out of the Top 100, and today sits at #21. If you want to change it up, you could use a derived surname name like Sampson or Samwell (hi, Game of Thrones), or one of these names similar to Samuel.

WEBSTER Noah Webster, the birthday boy, is the American dictionary writer, and his name lives on in dictionaries published today. He came of age during the Revolution, and his ideals led him to create a standard American English spelling to unite the new nation. His works helped to cement spellings like color and center (as opposed to colour and centre), and added the names of many New World plants and animals to the English vocabulary. His first name, Noah, is much beloved by American parents again today.

Webster belongs to that special group of female occupational names that also includes Baxter, Brewster and Hollister. Today it’s mainly used for boys. It’s familiar, easy to spell and pronounce, but unlike many other occupational names, is still relatively unused – so grab it now while it’s in the sweet spot!

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