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Unraveling the Origins of Evelyn

August 31, 2020 Aili Winstanley Channer
origin and meaning of evelyn

At first glance, Evelyn fits in comfortably alongside the likes of Eva and Adalynn on the US popularity charts. Marrying some of the most stylish sounds with an Edwardian poise and elegance, it’s no surprise that she is so well appreciated at the moment.

Despite this apparent simplicity, when you probe a little deeper into Evelyn’s origins, it becomes clear that there are more questions than answers.

For starters, was Evelyn originally used on boys or girls, and when and why did it make the switch? The appropriateness of naming a boy Evelyn is one of the Nameberry community’s most hotly debated topics.

How is Evelyn pronounced? This typically varies depending on what side of the Atlantic you are situated and whether the bearer is male or female.

Most importantly, where does Evelyn come from and what does it mean? The internet is completely divided on this one.

What is the Origin of the Name Evelyn?

It’s easiest to start by clarifying what Evelyn is not. It is not derived from Eve, nor from a combination of Eve and Lynn, although it has sometimes been used as such. This means that the claim that, like Eve, the name means “life” and is of Hebrew origin is unfounded.

Instead, Evelyn has its roots in the Norman French name Aveline, which was brought to Britain after the Norman Conquest. In Ireland, it became Eibhlín and then Eileen.

Aveline is frequently interpreted as meaning “hazelnut”, because aveline is an alternative French word for a hazelnut. However, this word, from the Latin abellana, is not the source of the given name.

Another suggestion is that the name comes from the Latin avis, “bird”.  The medieval name Avice, which was often confused with avis, is related to Aveline, but overwhelming evidence points in favor of both names actually coming from the Germanic name Ava. Most Norman names are Germanic in origin, so this makes sense.

What Is the Meaning of Evelyn?

Ava itself was the name of the first known female writer in the German language, the poet Ava of Göttweig (1060-1127), as well as a 9th century saint.

The name is commonly described as meaning “desired” or “wished for”, but this theory is unsubstantiated, as there are no plausible Germanic roots that could explain it.

It has also been suggested that it comes from the Ancient Germanic word alf, meaning “elf”, which is a very common element in given names. But this option is linguistically unlikely, because the Old High German version of the word is Alb, and both the transition from B to V and the loss of the L would be irregular.

The German linguist Ernst Förstermann offered the theory that Ava developed from a Proto-Germanic root meaning “island” or “water”. This would make it a cousin of the modern German word Aue, “river meadow”. Since V and U were often interchangeable, this root does look like a convincing source for Ava – and therefore Aveline too.

Evelyn: Girls’ Name or Boys’ Name?

Back in Norman England, Aveline quickly developed into the form Evelyn, and while both became rare after the end of the Middle Ages, Evelyn survived as a surname.

Among the aristocracy the practice of giving sons their mother’s maiden name as a first name was increasingly common, which explains why in the 17th century it began to be used as a given name for boys. There are other examples of girls’ names falling out of use and then becoming revived for boys via an intermediary surname, such as Emmet, which was originally a medieval diminutive of Emma.

Evelyn Pierrepont, the 1st Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull (c. 1665-1726) is one example of an Evelyn from this period whose name, originally his mother’s maiden name, also became the first name of both his daughter and his grandson. This shows that at this time people were comfortable with hearing the name on both men and women.

How Is the Name Evelyn Pronounced?

The pronunciation in this period was probably EVE-lin, which is how the surname has usually been pronounced across the centuries.

Fanny Burney brought Evelina into common use in England with her 1778 eponymous novel. Tapping into the contemporary taste for romantic Latinate names for girls, it gradually gained usage over the following decades. It was followed by Eveline in the early Victorian period, which seems to have inspired the revival of Evelyn for girls later in the 19th century. This explains the switch in pronunciation to EV-ə-lin, imitating the continental pronunciations of Evelina and Eveline.

The EVE-lin pronunciation continued to be used alongside it in England into the 20th century, creating a divide along class lines. The upper classes were more likely to use the name because it was a family surname, while the middle classes were more often inspired by literature and popular culture in their naming choices. These differences can be seen in bearers such as Evelyn (EEV-lin) Waugh and Evelyn (EV-ə-lin) Nesbit: one evoking the decaying aristocracy, the other the rise of mass media and popular entertainment.

Today, Evelyn is very rare for boys, and the EV-ə-lin pronunciation is preferred in both Britain and America. Its multifaceted gender history nevertheless remains an integral part of the name’s heritage.

Evelyn’s etymological journey therefore spans over a millennium of history, half of Europe, two genders, and half a dozen meanings picked up along the way. Ironically, the most likely original meaning of Evelyn – “water” or “island” – has been all but forgotten in the process.

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