English Words and Their Background

By George H. McKnight | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXV
PERSONAL NAMES

In England, as in other countries of Europe, the use of surnames did not become customary until late in the Middle Ages. Most Englishmen of the Anglo-Saxon period were content with a single name. A characteristic form for English names of the earliest period was a compound word. A frequently appearing first element in these compounds is Ælf-, meaning 'elf' or 'fairy,' appearing in such common names as Ælfgar, Ælfgifu, Ælfheah, Ælfhelm, Ælfhere, Ælflœd, Ælfred, Ælfric, Ælfstan, Ælfwin, and Ælfthryth. The use of this word suggests an attempt to propitiate the supernatural beings of an earlier faith, an attempt which in later times is paralleled by the seeking of saintly protection through giving to children the names of protecting saints. More frequently, however, the compound word is made up of names of qualities which the parent name-giver, with a degree of not unnatural sentiment, hoped to see realized in the character of his offspring: Æthel-, in Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelflœd, Æthelgifu, and their kind, means 'noble,' obviously a desirable quality. Ead-, in Eadberht, Eadgar, Eadgifu, Eadgyth, Eadhild, Eadmund, Eadred, Eadric, Eadsige, Eadweard, Eadwine, Eadwulf, Eadwig, is probably to be associated with the adjective ēadig, meaning 'happy.' Other common elements are beald, 'bold'; ecg, 'edge,' 'sword'; gōd, 'good'; wϊg, 'battle'; sige, 'victory'; wulf, 'wolf'; and such frequent suffixes as beorht, 'bright,' 'renowned'; heard, 'strong'; here, 'army'; mund, 'hand,' 'protection'; rŒd, 'counsel'; wine, 'friend'; appearing in such compounds as Ecgberht, Sigebeorht, Gōdmund, Wig

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