Fun With Patronymics

I remember when Northern European patronymics was explained to me, I felt like a whole new level of reality had opened up.  Here was a system that gave us so many of the names that are still common among us today, and I’d never realized it!  Seems pretty obvious now. 

In some European societies, a boy’s last name would be derived from his father’s first name, with “son” added at the end.  For example, if a man named Peter Williamson had a son named Jack, the boy’s name would be Jack Peterson.  If Jack had a son named Stephen, his named would be Stephen Jackson.  Etc. 

There were female suffixes, too, but these don’t seem to have thrived in the U.S.—I’ve never met anyone with the “dotter” (daughter) ending on her name.  I’ve only seen this in people’s genealogical research. 

It’s fun, I think, to see how many names we hear constantly but don’t think about which fall into this pattern.  Starting with the examples I gave above, one hypothetical family line could run as follows:

Peter Williamson

Jack Peterson

Stephen Jackson

Andrew Stephenson

Matthew Anderson (Andrew in English; “Anders” is the proper Scandinavian name)

Paul Matheson

John Paulson

James Johnson

Thomas Jameson

Carl Thomson

Eric Carlson

William Ericson

Peter Williamson

There are many, many more like this, most of which clearly have a Scandinavian origin (eg, Larson, son of Lars).  It would be interesting to see this reintroduced with the most popular names in 21st century America!

Is Mario A Male Maria?

One aspect of my interest in language is names.  Tonight, as I drove home from work, I saw a restaurant sign that included the name Mario, and it hit me for the first time: this name seems to do the opposite of what I usually notice names do.

Many female names are clearly adapted from older male names: 

  • Stephanie is a female Stephen
  • Paulette is a female Paul
  • Andrea is a female Andrew
  • Roberta is a female Robert
  • Michaela is a female Michael
  • Patricia is a female Patrick
  • Joan is a female John
  • Christina is a female Christopher

Notice that most of these examples are from men in the Bible.  This is important.  As those names are very old and very influential in Western cultures, it’s natural that female versions would evolve.

Mario, however, seems to have gone the other way: if Mari-o and Mari-a are related, the older name is Maria, which in English is Mary.  It makes sense that if names get adapted across genders because of age and cultural influence, especially Biblical names, then the name of the ultimate woman in the Bible would naturally produce a male version. 

This is all just speculation, though–I’m not a linguist.  But I’d like to look into this to see if I’m right.