The Top Welsh Names in Wales
By Eleanor Nickerson
A cursory glance at the top names in both England and Wales shows many of the same favourite choices, but, dig a little deeper, and Wales‘ Celtic heritage and separate language becomes apparent, with names almost exclusively found inside Wales alone. For one thing, Welsh has its own phonetic rules for letters of the alphabet which don’t always match English. That’s why the Welsh Top 200 has spellings which — to English speakers — look like “creative” spellings, but to Welsh parents are most compatible with their mother tongue: Harri, Tomos, Jac, Alys, Ela, Lili, Efa to name a few.
A rough pronunciation guide:
* w = ‘oo’ sound (wy = ‘ooee’ like the French oui)
* dd = ‘th’ as in that and this / th = ‘th’ as in thin and three
* ei/eu = ‘ay’ sound (or ‘eye’ sound in South Wales)
* f = ‘v’ sound / ff = ‘f’ sound
* u = ‘ee’ sound / y = short ‘u’ sound.
* Names that start with an ‘I‘ followed by a vowel makes a ‘y’ sound (e.g. Iestyn = YES-tin / Ieuan = YAY-an)
* Welsh names mostly have the stress on the penultimate syllable
Alaw / Awen / Awel – one notable trend for girls’ names in Wales is four-letter, vowel-heavy vocabulary names. Alaw (AL-ow -rhymes with how) meaning “harmony,” Awen (AH-wen) meaning “inspiration, poetic gift, muse” and Awel (AH-wel) meaning “breeze” are great examples of this trend. All three have been in rare use since the 19th century, but in the last decade have seen more consistent use in Wales.
Anest (AH-nest) – Nest/Nesta was a common name in Medieval Wales, borne by several royal women. It has traditionally been attributed as the Welsh form of Agnes (hence the A in Anest), but as the name pre-dates the common use of Agnes in Britain, it perhaps derives from the Latin Honesta or is Celtic in origin.
Eila (AY-la/EYE-la) –Eila has most likely been adopted in Wales as a short form of several Welsh names beginning with Eil- such as Eilwen, Eiluned, Eilian and Eilir and similar to Top 100 favourite Eira (AY-ra) “snow.”
Elliw (EH-hyoo) – Scarlett, Blue, Gray, Ebony… we’re familiar with color names in English, but how about calling your daughter “color”? This Welsh name meaning “color” is rising in Wales, but that double l makes it very tricky for non-Welsh speakers to pronounce correctly.
Eirwen (AYR-wen/EYER-wen) / Liliwen – Gwen “white, flair, blessed” is a staple element in Welsh names and they are still going strong. Eirwen combines (g)wen with eira “snow” while Liliwen is lily + wen.
Eos (AY-os) / Iola (YOL-a) – Eos may be a mythological Greek name meaning “dawn” but it also the Welsh word for “nightingale” now used as a name. Similarly, Iola is not only a Greek name, it is also the feminine form of Iolo, a short form of the old Welsh name Iorwerth “worthy lord.”
Lleucu (HLAY-kee/HLEYE-kee) – Pronounced with that tricky Welsh ‘ll’, Lleucu has traditionally been used as a Welsh counterpart to Lucy (from Latin lux “light”) based on meaning, rather than the phonetic spelling Liwsi.
Lleu (itself ranking at #441 for boys), is the ancient name of the twin brother of Dylan in Welsh legend whose name means “light, brightness, shining.” The –cu part of Lleucu means “dear, beloved” in Welsh and was no doubt used to echo the -cy of Lucy.
Medi (MED-ee) – We may use the English month names April, May and June, but in Wales the most popular Welsh month name is Medi “September.” The reason for its success is likely thanks to its similarity to Welsh staples like Cadi (Katie), Mali (Molly) and Mari (Marie).
Menna – Coined in the 19th century by Welsh poet John Ceirog Hughes (1832-1887) for the love interest in his poem Alun Mabon. Similarly, poet Eliseus Williams (1867-1926) addressed some of his poems to the a woman named Men. It isn’t clear where Menna comes from, but it was most likely conceived as a short form of Welsh names such as Morwenna, Mairwen and Meriona or from the Welsh word menyw “woman.”
Swyn (SOOEEN) – A magical modern coinage taken from the Welsh word meaning “magic, charm, enchantment.”
Eifion (AYV-yon/EYEV-yon) – An ancient Welsh name with obscure meaning. Welsh poet Eliseus Williams (1867-1926) used the bardic name Eifion Wynn which he no doubt took from Eifionydd (itself named after an ancient Welsh leader called Eifion) – the place where he grew up. The name has had recent expose thanks to Welsh rugby player Eifion Lewis–Roberts.
Gruffydd (GRIFF-uth) – A traditional Welsh name which has seen continual use since it was borne by Welsh royalty in the 11th century. The second part is certainly the Old Welsh iudd “lord.” The first is uncertain, but most likely represents cryf “strong, powerful.”
Not only does the Welsh Top 500 have the spellings Gruffydd and Gruffudd, but also the short form Griff, Gruff and Gryff (which together would rank in the Top 100). Added to this is alternate short form Guto (GEE-to).
Gwion (GWEE-on) – A figure of Welsh mythology who was charged with stirring Ceridwen’s cauldron of inspiration (“The Awen”) and accidentally drank some, leading to his becoming the great bard Taliesin. It has been used as a genuine given name since the 19th century.
Hywel (HOO-ul) – A traditional Welsh name, borne by early royalty, that survived in continual use in Wales from the Middle Ages (later often found in the English form Howell). It derives from the old Celtic words *su– “good” and *welo- “to see” and probably was originally a nickname for someone who was forthright.
Iori (YOR-ee) – Alonside Iolo (YOL-o), Iori is a short form of the traditional Welsh name Iorwerth: ior “lord” and gwerth “worth, merit.”
Mabon (MAB-on) – The name of one of the most significant Celtic gods, which means “(divine) son.” Mabon also appears in Arthurian legend and as a genuine given name in the Middle Ages.
Math – A character in Welsh mythology who most likely represents an ancient Celtic god. The name derives from either the Celtic *matu- “bear” or *mati- “good.” It has been used as a genuine given name since the 19th century, but as a name might be confused with the word.
Rhydian (HRID-yan) – An early Welsh saint, whose name is possibly from the Old Welsh rudd “red” making it cognate with the Irish Ruadhan. It has been in use as a given name since the early 20th century.
Many thanks to the website annaprints.co.uk for permission to use their adorable illustration.
And now for your weekly bonus: Katinka‘s fabulous Forum findings this week:
* This is such a sweet request! In search of a baby boy name that comes with its own lullaby, just like big sister’s music-inspired moniker.
* The Great Gender-Bender Debate rages on: why are conventionally masculine names so popular for girls these days — and why should we care?
* And, on a lighter note: stellar sibsets! What are your criteria for super sibling names?
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on March 12th, 2018 at 5:59 am
What an interesting post.
I’m no expert on Welsh names (though I’ve long found them intriguing and beautiful), but it seems to me that the boys’ names are fairly traditional/based on historical or mythical names, while the girls’ include more new/innovative names.
That’s not surprising, but it is interesting for me to see yet another example of the tendency to name boys more conservatively than girls.
Just to let you know – the links in the second part of the post (Katinka’s findings) don’t seem to be working for me. They’re displayed in bold (rather than the usual colour difference/underline) and don’t seem to link to anything.
on March 12th, 2018 at 7:43 am
It’s fascinating to know that Nesta might not be from Agnes! Do you have any theories for a Celtic derivation?
Eleanor Nickerson Said
on March 12th, 2018 at 8:15 am
@onomastodon Even in the mid-19th century, more traditional “Welsh” names were in use for men than women. A great breakdown of the names on the 1851 census in Glamorgan can be found here: http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/wal/GLA/1851Names
By the Celtic Revival in the late 19th century, newly created names from Welsh vocabulary became fashionable. Some where for boys (Euros, Islwyn, Haulfryn, Bryn(mor)) but many more were for girls — no doubt to plug the gap. Most of these boys names are out of fashion now, but some of the girls’ names (Awen, Awel, Alaw, Eirlys, Eirwen, Liliwen, Enfys etc) are still going strong.
Eleanor Nickerson Said
on March 12th, 2018 at 8:22 am
@Kew Here is what K.M. Sheard wrote about Nest:
“A common name in Medieval Wales, Nest is usually interpreted as being a variant of Agnes. Given the fact that the earliest examples date to the late eight century, however, long before Agnes became established as a girl’s name in the British Isles, it seems more likely the name is Celtic in origin — possibly CC [Common Celtic]: *nixto- “clean” or *nexta- “granddaughter.” It may even have a Latin origin, perhaps deriving from Honestus “honest” and “respectable,” a fairly common cognomen.
on March 12th, 2018 at 12:08 pm
So fascinating! I do love Welsh names! Should I just go to the office of National Statistics if I want to see the actual usage? I’m thinking once you get to the 2-300’s on this list, we’re down to only a couple babies per name per year, but maybe I’m wrong?
Eleanor Nickerson Said
on March 12th, 2018 at 12:26 pm
@ARead: Yes, these came from the ONS’s recent publication of the breakdown of all the names per region in England and Wales in 2016. Wales had the second smallest birth-rate of the ten regions: 16,805 boys and 16,130 girls. The babies in the 200s represent 14-8 babies; the 300s represents 8-5 babies and the 400s is 5/4 babies.
on March 12th, 2018 at 1:26 pm
You’ve missed off one pronunciation guide.
the double L -Ll – as in Llewelyn –
It’s pronounced – thl – it’s probably the hardest for a non-native learner, like me.
So Llewelyn would be pronounced Thlewelyn – with your tongue to the middle front of the roof of your mouth. It’s almost like saying ‘slew’ and ‘flu’ at the same time.
Have fun trying this one out.
Eleanor Nickerson Said
on March 12th, 2018 at 1:48 pm
@merlynhawk. I agree. It’s a tricky one for non-native speakers. I thought it would be a little tricky to describe, which is why I have linked to sound bites in the description for Elliw and Lleucu. Some people (like me) find it easier if they hear it.
on March 12th, 2018 at 4:18 pm
I find Welsh names to be so darn beautiful! I love Seren, Lowri, Catrin, Anwen, Celyn, Aneria, Arianwen, Arwen, Liliwen, Rhiannon, Olwen (my favourite girls name ever. I prefer the Olwyn spelling though), Rhys, Morgan, Owen, Ioan, Ieuan, Idris, Iwan, Iestyn, Carwyn, Emrys, Aneurin/Aneirin, Rhydian & Bleddyn.
Of them all, Olwyn and Ioan are my absolute favourites. I love seeing Rhydian as a popular choice. It’s so gorgeous! You Welsh folks are a lucky bunch.
on March 12th, 2018 at 4:20 pm
on March 12th, 2018 at 5:19 pm
Great post! I do love Welsh names… Gwen, Catrin, Anwen, Mabli, Betsan, Anest and Tesni are my favourites for the girls and Osian, Idris, Griff, Mabon, Iago and Llew for the boys.
I’d use Mabli or Gwen in a heartbeat!
on March 12th, 2018 at 7:01 pm
I love this post! 😀 I’m always on the hunt for a great Welsh name to honor my ancestry, and have been in LOVE with Bryn, Ianto, Gwendolyn/Gwendolen, Lili, Anwen, Rhys, and Aderyn for years. I’ve recently fallen for Eira (although I’m glad I don’t have to decide whether I prefer it to honor my Welsh or Scandinavian ancestry, because both etymologies are lovely!), Idris, Bronwen, Taliesin, Arwen, Ceridwen, and Rhydian recently, too! Awen (what an absolutely gorgeous meaning!) and Eila might have to be new-er favorites, too!
on March 12th, 2018 at 8:06 pm
As someone who’s got some Welsh ancestry & is fascinated by Welsh history, I’ve tried to learn the correct pronunciations for Welsh names & words. That double L has multiple “correct” pronunciations, depending on which source one consults: the -thl-, Shakespeare’s -fl- (hence Fluellen in Henry V), “put your tongue in the position for L & blow hard,” -chl-, -hl-…
JRR Tolkien based Sindarin on Old Welsh, & in The Lord of the Rings movies, when Aragorn &/or the elves were speaking, I *almost* felt like I could understand them at times. 🙂
on March 13th, 2018 at 5:36 am
Super interesting, Elea – thank you for that info (and the link)!
on March 14th, 2018 at 2:53 pm
Went to wales and Rhydian is pronounced Rid-dee-an
on June 13th, 2018 at 11:54 pm
Resist the urge to say Bethan as “Beth-an” or “Beth-ann”. It’s actually “Beeth-an”, like Ethan with a B. Think how you’d pronounce “Elizabethan”.
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