State Library of South Australia

What IS the Name?

Date: 28 September 2015

Current researchers often have difficulty working out antique first names from their abbreviations. The practice of abbreviating first names was fashionable in old records and advertisements. Such terms appeared as Jno for Jonathan, Jos for Joseph, Jas for James, Thos for Thomas, Chas for Charles, Wm for William, Geo for George, Benj for Benjamin and Saml for Samuel.

The OHiggins and his mother
The O’Higgins & his mother

John was often called Jack. Bert caused confusion. It could refer to Albert, Gilbert, Herbert, Robert or even Bertram. Gus may have been Angus or Augustus. Ned, Neddy, Ted and Teddy referred to Edward or Edwin, and Alby to Albert. Rollo indicated Harold but otherwise, Harold was called Harry. Harry was popular and usually referred to Henry, or various spellings of this such as Henery or even Handry (Phonetic spelling and transcriptions created some monstrous versions of names). Alfred could be Alf or Fred, whilst Frederick was Fred or perhaps Rick, as Richard was, except for when Richard was called Dick.

Richard Van Emden discusses in one of his books the extraordinary influence of the Boer War on British names. Children were christened Baden, Powell, Mafeking, Ladysmith, Redvers, Buller and occasionally Bloemfontein, Majuba, Transvaal or Stromberg. Kimberly retained popularity although the following were unique: Modder River Lampard and James Spion Kop Skinner.

In South Australia the Great War led to the Anglicisation of German names. We now rarely hear of Wilhelm, Ernst, Emil, Carl, Gottlieb, Hermann, Christiane, Auguste, Beata, Modeste, Phillipine, Wilhelmine, Hendrina, Mathilde, Leonore, Ottile, or Albertine. Early South Australian passenger lists featured at least six German males named Godlove and one Godhelp.

Women's names were also shortened in the Victorian era. Letitia became Letty; Charlotte, Lottie; Eleanor, Nelly; Bridget, Biddy or Bridey; Theodora, Dora; Margaret, Peggy; Millicent, Milly; Hanorah, Nora or Norah; Frances, Fanny; Helen, Ellen; Mary, Polly and Elizabeth, Betty, Bessie, Betsey or Beth. Beth has the distinction of also existing as a name, so to speak, in its own right.

Here are some other girls' names which have become rare, and when recited may be more useful than counting sheep for facilitating sleep… Abigail, Agnes, Arabella, Barbara, Bathsheba, Beatrice, Cecily, Charity, Clara, Constance, Cordelia, Esther, Euphemia, Geraldine, Harriett, Henrietta, Hepzibah, Hermione, Hesther, Hilary, Jennet, Kezia, Lavinia, Maria, Martha, Maud, Mercy, Nancy, Olive, Rosine, Selina, Susannah, Tamson, Tryphena and Winifred.

Male names now rarely used include: Basil, Cedric, Cephas, Cornelius, Cyril, Ebenezer, Elias, Elijah, Eustace, Hector, Isaac, Job, Josiah, Malachi, Noah, Obadiah, Onispherus, Reginald, Theodore, Theophilus, Thorold, Victor and Walter.

Salathiel was a name apparently useful for both genders. And a couple of names from Scotland were used… Sholto which is a male name meaning 'sower' and Stroma, a female name meaning 'an island in the tidal stream'.

Reflecting on all of the above, and on old names which have become popular again such as Charles, it seems that perhaps the most difficult-to-spell names were the ones which haven't been embraced again. However, every generalisation has its exceptions. Mary, like Ann and Jane, currently seems to have disappeared as have Mary Ann and Mary Jane. However, Crown Princess Mary and Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark could inspire a trend.

And so, after all these names, an illustration would be appropriate. The above serene portrait of an anonymous mother and child appeared in a photo album in about 1907 belonging to a bachelor. This Irish officer of a British vessel which traversed the West coast of South America, wrote the ironic caption, 'The O'Higgins and His Mother' which alludes to Bernardo O'Higgins, Supreme Director of Chile 1817-1823. His mother was Chilean and his father was the half-Spanish Ambrosio O'Higgins, born in County Sligo, Ireland. Nobody knows the names of the actual mother and baby in the photo. The owner of the album, however, was a Robert, so at times, he was a Bob but not so far as is known, ever a Bert.

Story by: Rose Wilson

Back to extra - Spring 2015 - the stories

Contact Us

Phone Us: +61 8 8207 7250
Ask Us a research query
Visit Us: Corner North Tce
& Kintore Ave, Adelaide

Media queries
Venue hire queries

View our contact details

Copyright & this website | Disclaimer | Privacy | Tell us what you think | Accessibility | FOI | Sitemap

Page last updated: 2:24 PM 2 Oct 2015

Page URL:

State Library of SA - South Australian Government