For many people (especially the non-name obsessed), names tend to fall into categories typically defined by their era.
There are the “classic” perennial choices like Elizabeth, William, Anna, James, which never seem to go out of style; the biblical choices which have been used, in various forms, for millennia (even if their popularity has fluctuated); the “old-fashioned” choices, which encompass anything popular 50+ years ago which have since fallen out of favour; and, of course, “modern” names.
Modern names feel like fresh, new creations. They may be inspired by words (Miley, Nevaeh, Serenity), a newly discovered import (Isla, Mila, Leonardo) or a surname adopted for use as a given name. All feel like they break the mold, treading a new path from the popular given names that have come before and perhaps raising eyebrows among the older generations.
But our perception of “modern” can sometimes be misleading. Here are some names – which appear to be modern coinages – that were used as given names centuries ago, back in the Middle Ages.
Aubrey – A unisex name that now has a reputation as a “boy-name-gone-girl.” But the truth is that Aubrey has been a unisex name for centuries. The form we use today comes from two distinct Ancient Germanic names: the masculine name Alberic “elf ruler” and the feminine name Alberada “elf counsel.” Once they had passed through Old French, both names became Aubrey in medieval English and it was used for both genders equally up until the 18th century.
Bennett – Thanks to the popularity of the renowned saint, Benedict was a well used name in the Middle Ages. If you travelled back to medieval England, however, this isn’t the name you would hear on the streets, as most Benedicts answered to the vernacular form Bennet(t). You may also be surprised to see a few medieval girl Bennetts running around, as it also doubled as a vernacular form for the feminine Benedicta.
Drew – We tend to think of Drew as a modern nickname for Andrew, however, its use as a given name in its own right is much older. Originally, Drew came from the Frankish name Drogo, the name of a son of Charlemagne. It became Dreus in Old French and was brought to Britain by the Normans where it became Drew.
By at least the 14th century, Drew also became used as a short-form of Andrew and so the names became confused. One Drew Barentyn in 1400 appealed to a Council to have his name corrected in a list of freemen because it had been incorrectly entered as Andrew. Oops!
Drew was also used for girls in the 16th century, and this was most likely because girls were sometimes also called Andrew during this period (and Anthony, Matthew, Nicholas, Phillip….). The idea that Drew for girls is a modern phenomenon just simply isn’t true.
Ellery – A medieval spelling variant of Hillary which, like Aubrey, was a genuine medieval unisex name as it was the vernacular form of both the masculine Hillarius “merriment,” as well as feminine Hillaria, and Eulalia “well-spoken.”
Emmett – This is perhaps my favourite gender-bender name because it defies convention and can now be considered a “girl gone boy” name. Back in the Middle Ages, diminutives were formed by adding -ot, -et, -el, -in, -on etc, and so most medieval Emmas – who answered to the vernacular Em/Emm – would have had Emmot or Emmet as a nickname. This then later became a surname which is how it came to be used for boys.
Everett – An ancient name in Britain which comes from both the Anglo-Saxon Eoforheard and the Old Germanic cognate Eberhard, which was brought to Britain by the Normans. Both were derived from eber “boar” and hard “brave, strong.” As spelling was flexible back then, Everett was one of its spelling variations.
Gemma – This Italian name meaning “gem stone,” has been in use in Italy since at least the 10th century giving it a long history of use. However, it can also be found in medieval England as a unisex name, and from a completely different source. Gemma, Jemma and Jimme were vernacular forms of James during the Middle Ages, and used for both men and women.
Ruby – We tend to think of Ruby as a Victorian invention, coined at a time when a whole host of botanical and gemstone names were brought into use. But, the truth is Ruby has been used consistently for girls since at least the 14th century in Britain, and used for boys by the 17th century, probably as a nickname for Reuben.
Stacy / Stacey – In the Middle Ages, Stace was the common form of Eustace. Eustace itself (like Bennett) was both the vernacular form of masculine Eustacius and the feminine Eustacia, and the unisex Stace gained the diminutive Stacy. Another source for Stace at the time was Anastasia, which became Anstace in English, and (occasionally) Anastasius.
Sydney – Sydney is another name with a reputation as “boy-gone-girl.” Sydney / Sidney, to our modern sensibilities, is a sweet and fusty grandpa name, co-opted for the girls. Our grandpa Sidneys got their name from an Old English habitational surname, derived from sid “broad, wide” and ieg “island, well-watered land”. However, girls were being given the name long before the surname was used for boys, but from a completely different source. The Latin Sidonia became Sedaine in Old French, and Sedany and Sidony in English. Later the spellings got mixed up with Sidney.
Tiffany – The 80s It-Girl Tiffany feels like it was plucked from the annals of ancient history to become a fresh modern choice. However, since the Middle Ages, Tiffany has had continual and consistent use, even if it wasn’t wildly popular before the 20th century. The Greek name Theophania “manifestation of God,” was adopted as a variant of Epiphany and quickly became Tiffany in vernacular English. Since the Middle Ages, it has been used as a given name for girls born during Ephiphany.