Names Through the Ages by Teresa Norman

Names through the Ages, Teresa Norman, Berkley, 1999

3.5 Stars

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Names Through Some Nations’ Ages

The description for Names Through the Ages claims that “In the first book of its kind, Teresa Norman traces the history of Europe, from the ancient Roman era to the present, and shows how names originated and changed throughout the ages,” which is sort of true, but not completely so. What is presented here is valuable information on the etymology of certain names, both first and last, that range over several thousand years.

As unprecedented as this book claims to be, its scope is limited to a small portion of Europe, specifically France and the British Isles, as well as America. No other European nations are covered. France is the lone non-Anglophonic one mentioned. This Anglocentric perspective is expected, as in the English-speaking world it’s natural to focus on English naming conventions and France’s history has been tied to England’s for over a millennium. Still, it’s a shame, considering many of the names listed are derived from Aramaic, Germanic, Scandinavian, Hellenic, and Roman roots, so it would have been fascinating to learn of other nations’ naming customs.

Norman provides in-depth historical details that led to the evolution of names over time. The book is broken down by area and eras, with sections on England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, and later, the USA. The chapters begin with lists of the rulers of each country, then go on to impart information on political, social, and religious norms of individual time periods, before examining how those issues contributed to the formation of names. Roots, prefixes, and suffixes are provided. The lists of names are sorted by gender and their definitions are shown, but not, lamentably pronunciations.

American Names, Too?

The American portion of the book is the shortest, but gives the greatest variety of names, as one might expect considering the multicultural and multilingual roots of her people. The origins of surnames are indicated and vary from English to Spanish to Native American to Japanese. However, the names are not broken down by region, nor indicate how they are distributed among ethnic/racial lines, which would have made it more comprehensive. Nevertheless, it’s possible there are people named Zebulon Chin, Leif Aguilera, Latasha Bear Killer, and Rashad Metzger because that’s just the way America rolls.

A Useful Guide

“Names Through the Ages” is a helpful source for creators of fiction who want authentic sounding names in their works. Looking for a male Scots name circa 1400? How about Ruaraidh Colquhoun? (I assume it’s pronounced Rory Culkin, but don’t hold me to that.) A female character during the French Revolution could be Alexandrine Bouteiller. How about an English Regency-era rake? Sir Lyell Sutton sounds appropriately pompous.

But even if you’re not writing, this is a useful reference. My daughter would often steal this book from my shelf to search for names for her Medieval Sims characters or when she played RPGs. And of course, potential parents will find this handy when trying to find that perfect name for their babies.

What’s here in this book is super utile, however, I was hoping for a wider expanse of names. I’d give this 5 stars if it were called British and French Names Through the Ages as it is very enlightening when it comes to those. I have deducted 1 star-and-a-half as it covers a mere fraction of Europe, but don’t let my grievances deter you from reading this book; it is, as I said, an illuminating source of knowledge.