What is onomastics?
Onomastics is the study of names. Names of all kinds – names of people (e.g. first names, middle names, surnames, nicknames), names of places (e.g. countries, districts, cities, towns, villages), names of landscape features (e.g. seas, rivers, streams, lakes, mountains, hills, valleys, forests, woods, moors, marshes), names of buildings (e.g. houses, churches, pubs, schools, airports, hotels, railway stations), names of routeways (e.g. roads, streets, paths, tracks, bridges, fords, canals, shipping routes), names of animals (e.g. pets, greyhounds, racehorses, cows), names of ethnic and social groups (e.g. nations, tribes, political parties, clubs, sports teams), names of events (e.g. competitions, fairs, races), names of astronomical features (e.g. planets, stars), names of vehicles (e.g. aircrafts, locomotives, ships), names of commercial products (e.g. chocolates, lipsticks, wines), names of creative works (e.g. books, films, plays, poems), names in fiction as well as in the real world – the list goes on and on.
Where do names come from?
Most names originated as meaningful words. Some are obvious: the girl’s name Grace, the surname Smith, the dog’s name Prince and the horse’s name Merrylegs are all recognisable as English words, as are place-names such as Blackwood, Whitechapel and the Lake District, and names of other kinds such as the Open University, the Royal Opera House, the Dead Sea and the Dog Star. Other names are equally transparent to speakers of other modern languages, as with Dilys ‘steadfast’ (Welsh), Burnbrae ‘hill with a stream’ (Scots) and Cairngorm ‘blue rocky hill’ (Gaelic). More often, though, names are from historical languages no longer widely recognised. These range from ancient Greek and Hebrew, particularly common in Biblical personal names such as Peter ‘rock’ (Greek) and Matthew ‘gift of God’ (Hebrew), to the Celtic and Germanic languages spoken in different parts of the Western world over the last two millennia. In Scotland, for instance, Glasgow ‘green hollow’ is from Cumbric, an early Celtic language, Prestwick ‘priests’ farm’ is from Old English, the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons who occupied much of southern Britain from the fifth to the eleventh centuries, and Kirkoswald ‘Oswald’s church’ is from the Scandinavian language introduced to Britain by incomers from Denmark and Norway. Some names are older still, deriving from a language spoken in the British Isles before the arrival of the Celts a few centuries B.C. These are mostly river-names, a type of name noted for longevity. Among recent coinages are street-names, probably the most productive area of name formation at the present day.
Why are names interesting?
Names are interesting for what they tell us about ourselves and about the people who share or have shared the world with us. The choices we make in giving names to our children, our pets and our homes reflect the things that are important to us. Do we want to honour relatives, emulate media or sports personalities, or signal ethnic or religious background? Do we prefer plainness or elegance? Are we traditionalists, sticking to well established names, or innovators, looking for something unusual? How do our priorities differ from those of our ancestors, or from those of people in other parts of the world? What do differences between boys’ names and girls’ names show about attitudes towards gender in present-day and earlier societies? The names we inherit are interesting too. Our surnames reflect the origins, occupations or characteristics of our ancestors, while the place-names that surround us show how our predecessors described the world, and what languages they spoke. Names are also one of the key tools used by writers of fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien famously created an elaborate system of place-names from the fictional languages of Middle Earth, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex is convincingly located in southern England through a mixture of real, fictional and part-fictional place-names, and clues about the characters in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series are embedded in their names.
Who studies names?
Names are studied by scholars and amateur researchers in a wide range of subjects. Archaeologists study them for evidence of past civilisations. Historians study them for evidence of past events, settlements and migration patterns. Philologists study them for evidence of lost languages and early forms of languages. Linguists study them for evidence of language development. Lexicographers study them for evidence of words and word meanings. Geographers study them for evidence of early landscapes. Sociologists study them for evidence of social change. Genealogists study them for evidence of family history. Local historians study them for evidence of local history. Anthropologists study them for evidence of human societies and their organisation. Psychologists study them for evidence of how memory works. Literary critics study them for evidence of the interpretation of novels, plays, poems and songs. It would be difficult to find any subject, particularly in the arts and social sciences, where name evidence is not relevant.
How are names studied?
The study of names depends on collaboration between academics and the wider public. Everyone uses names – they are one of the common factors in all human societies – so each person has individual insights into how names are used within their own family or community. Specialist knowledge and training is required to work out the origins and meanings of place-names, often tracing their recorded history back for centuries in order to establish which languages they are from, when they were first created and what they referred to. However, local knowledge is also essential to confirm whether or not a particular interpretation is appropriate, how the name might have arisen and why. Similarly with personal names: academic research shows that Andrew, the name of the patron saint of Scotland, derives from a Greek word for ‘warrior’ and is statistically one of the most popular names in present-day Britain. However, only through consultation with parents and other name givers is it possible to establish whether the name’s popularity is due to its meaning, its religious or Scottish connotations, its use in previous generations as the name of grandparents or other relatives, or other factors. So too, scholars of literature analyse the use of names by different writers, but the extent to which such literary devices are successful can only be measured by the impact on the reader. The input of consumer groups is crucial to market research into the development of appropriate names for products, and the study of nicknames depends on liaison with the closed societies (such as schools, prisons or sports clubs) in which they tend to evolve. This collaborative aspect is one of the reasons the study of names is so interesting and enjoyable. More than in most areas of research, everyone has something to contribute, and advances in knowledge are achieved by working together. A key role is played by subject societies with a wide membership among both academics and the interested public. I myself have been closely involved for many years with the English Place-Name Society (EPNS), the Scottish Place-Name Society (SPNS), the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland (SNSBI) and the International Congress of Onomastic Sciences (ICOS). Such societies underpin the field of onomastics, and I strongly encourage anyone with an interest in names of any kind, or at any level, to get involved with these or with other associations in their local area. At the same time, I hope that as many people as possible will contribute to this website. As a new initiative providing exciting opportunities for the exchange of ideas, it offers a forum for discussion in which we can all take part.
Professor of Onomastics
University of Glasgow