02 March 2011

Thinking About Girls...

...Their Names, That Is

The other day, a Dutch acquaintance was describing an area where she walks her dog and also takes many nice pictures (the two in this post belong to her). She lives in Alexanderlaan, and the dog-walking area is called Laapersheide. She noted that Dutch heide is English “heather”. And...

And of course it is! It makes perfect sense. I should have seen that connection before. German has Heide, too. I’ve always thought of it as meaning “meadow”, without connecting it with any English cognates like “heather”.

But now my Dutch friend pointed it out, and that set me to thinking. Heather is also a girl’s name in English. Are there names in German that correspond? And then — Can anyone say “Grandfather! Grandfather!”? Yes, I’d put money on Heidi being the German equivalent of English Heather as a girl’s name. (Remember, I’m speculating here... It’s no fun looking it up straight away.)

Heidi = Heather may not be news to anyone else, but I found it sufficiently fascinating to keep me awake a little longer as I floated off to sleep last night to a Frank Zappa guitar solo.* I started to reflect on girls’ names in general, because, when you think about it, there are some interesting trends. Off the top of my head, I’ve come up with the following observations.

We seem to associate girls and women with the springtime of the year — or at least the nicest part in the northern hemisphere: March, April, May, June, Julie. It’s true we have at least one January (Jones), but I don’t think that counts as a trend.**

Aside from thinking of them seasonally, we tend to think girls are virtuous (or maybe we engage in magical thinking by naming them so): Hope (and Esperanza), Faith, Charity, Chastity, Patience, Prudence, Grace, Clementine, Justine.

They can be musical: Melody, Harmony, Carol, Viola.

One thing is certain: Girls are both loved (Amy) and glorious (Gloria). But what are we to think of parents who saddle their little girl-babe with pain and suffering (Dolores)?

Back to Heather. Are there other similar features we like to use in christening the wee lasses? I’m going through geo- words like river, woods, valley, ridge, hills, falls, cascade, butte (oh no!), torrent, crag, peak, summit, grass, pond, hay, barley, yucca, dune, brook (hey! Brooke!), stream, field, meadow, cliff, mud-slide... Not hitting anything besides Brooke here. And maybe Dale. Oh, and Lake (Bell, but I think she's more a one-off like January Jones).

Maybe Heather led me astray, toward topographical features. I should have been looking to botany for her compadres (commadres?): Lily, Violet, Rose, Petunia, Daisy, Dahlia, Camille, Iris... Flowers rein supreme in naming our little blossoms. And Heather is, I suppose, a sort of flower.

Time to look her up. My OED gives us this:

heather (n.), early 14c., hathir, from O.E. *hæddre, Scottish or northern England dialect name for Calluna vulgaris, probably altered by heath, but real connection to that word is unlikely [Liberman]. Perhaps originally Celtic.

Note the highlighted text above. Liberman must have been smoking something botanical. Read on:

heath (n.), O.E. hæð "tract of wasteland," earlier "heather," influenced by O.N. heiðr "field," from P.Gmc. *khaithijo (cf. O.S. hetha, O.H.G. heida "heather," Du. heide "heath," Goth. haiþi "field"), from PIE *kait- "open, unplowed country" (cf. O.Ir. ciad, Welsh coed, Breton coet "wood, forest").

I know naming trends follow waves that might be inexplicable (though Steven Pinker makes some good stabs at explicking them in The Stuff of Thought). But what's interesting about these girl-name tendencies is that the name classes cross different generational waves; the flowers, say, are not all in vogue at the same time. And there doesn't seem to be an equivalent number of name classes for boys. That is, classes of nouns (flowers, virtues, car models or whatever) that serve as names for boys. 

I haven’t found any deep-seated sociological meanings to the girl-naming trends, but I do I think it’s pretty clear that Heidi probably is Heather.

And on that note, here's another Dutch heather picture to enjoy:


* It was either “Watermelon in Easter Hay” or “Things That Look Like Meat”

** Month-wise, August is an exception that proves the rule. August is a man’s name but it doesn’t invalidate this train of thought, because the name of the month comes from the name of the emperor, who took his name from a Latin adjective meaning “venerable”.

[Abbreviations page updated.]


  1. Very interesting! I named by little blossom Haven. Do you think that counts under topography?

  2. Russian also follows the trend to some degree: Nadezhda, Lyubov, Vera, Mila, for example. Those are just off the top of my head, but I'm sure there are many more parallels to what you write above.

    Delightfully written!

  3. Great article! It is certainly relevant in my household, since Emel is "Hope". And since Alsan is "Lion" and Austin is derived from "August" maybe it would be worth thinking about male naming conventions a bit more, and comparing/contrasting both with female and other culture's naming conventions.

  4. Beautiful! I wanted to name Sonia (daughter #2), Siena after the city I love so dearly in Toscana. Natalia, daughter #1, (not to be confused with my #1 daughter, because that would just be too mean. I mean, honestly, Sonia hasn't been around that long to even know which one is better) was born about 2000 years after J.C., so I'm not sure her name is appropriate.

    In any event, I'm really just jealous that you get to fall asleep to music. My lovely wife can't, which means I can't either.

    Where did I leave my NY Times style guide? I know I'm making a mess of this!

  5. Kelly: Sounds better like that than if it belonged to the infrastructure class! :-)

    Anon1: Good point. It would be interesting to read a comparative study of such naming trends across languages and cross reference it with other major characteristics of the culture of each language (e.g., religion)

    Anon2: With that we now have four — count 'em — four different languages with women's names "Hope": English, Russian, Spanish, and Azeri. I wonder how many other languages, especially from different language families, share that name.

    Maybe Star Wars' "New Hope" wasn't Luke, but Leia?

    Brian: That's why god invented iPods. Now get some sleep. :-)

  6. nice train of thought! :) love finding out the meaning of words