by Bob Brooke
Naming newborn babies can be a trying process for parents. Some choose to name their sons and daughters after themselves or their parents. Lately, first names for both girls and boys seem to be following fads. Jennifer has been around for a while, and Ashley and Leslie have soared. Michael has been up near the top for a long time. David, Peter, and John, however, don't show up so frequently now as, for instance, the trendy Jason and Jared
But genealogical records reveal that giving newborns faddish names isn't an entirely new phenomenon. Our ancestors displayed an uncanny range of educated sophistication in the naming of their babies. As an amateur onomastician (onomastics is the science or study of the origins and forms of proper names of persons or places), Elizabeth Oldham of Nantucket, using just one set of genealogical records, classified the naming of Nantucket babies from the 17th to the 19th centuries into eight categories--Biblical, classical/romantic-poetic, Quaker, imaginative, novelistic, Yankee Victorian, and zoological.
The obvious biblical names occur in almost every family record--Ruth, Rebecca, Ezra, Jacob, Reuben, Nathaniel, Ebenezer, Bathsheba, Sarah--but the people in those families really read their Bibles. How else would they have come up with Benoni, Shnbael, Zebulon, Achsah, Bazaleel, Barachiah, Asenath, for their boys and Apphia, Tamar, and Merab for their girls. One family named their six sons after the twelve tribes of Israel--Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judab (leaving out Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, and Naphrali) and picking up again with Joseph and Benjamin. Another couple named their triplets Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Early Nantucketers were extremely well read. They read Greek and Latin texts as much for pleasure as for educational achievement. The Romantic poets--Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, were household icons. So it isn't surprising that classical and literary names such as Horatio, Telemachus, Orlando, Leander, Lysander, Lucreria, Ginevra, Minerva, Niohe, Lydia, and Clarissa popped up in the baptismal registers.
The Compact Bible Dictionary states that in Patriarchal times--before the time of Moses-- people saw names as "indicators of character, function, or destiny." Perhaps the Friends saw names in the same light when they called their baby boys and girls Provided, Wealthy, Content, Prudence, Endowed, Love, Temperance, Pleasant, and Desire.
Some parents got creative with names, even 400 years ago. Oldham couldn't find any mention of Desclamia, Elthina Delphina, Zulema, Musidora, Alvaretta or Verlinda (all girls) in several dictionaries of names. She also found it hard to believe that names like Belvidere, Plane, Wickliffe, Chadwick, Powhattan, Bagnell,, and Marmaduke could be found anywhere except in a bad novel.
Names toward the end of the 19th century, especially those recorded after the Civil War, tended to have a Yankee ring--Huldah, Avis, Harriet, Gertrude, Clara, Adeline, Etta Herman, Emeline, Arthur, George, Frank. One progressive couple named their children California, Texas, Carson, Florida May, and Minnesota.
A name like Mary Pigeon sounds simple enough. But how likely is it that around 1800 Thomas Mackerel may have strolled down to the Nantucket wharf to greet a newcomer from Rhode Island with the most remarkable name of all: Preserved Fish.