American Names · Opinions

Words from Names: A Vocabulary

I frequently write about words that become names.  A few hundred years ago, the Puritans famously appropriated virtues like Faith for their children’s names.  Virtues are still popular sources for vocab baby names in the 21st century, but so are all kinds of things – travel, guns, etc.  You may soon encounter a young Journey or Remington.

Lately I’ve been watching a fantastic BBC show called “Call the Midwife” about childbirth in a poor section of London, circa 1950s and 1960s.  The latest episode I’ve watched ends with a woman being prescribed thalidomide for extreme morning sickness.  Knowing that thalidomide caused serious birth defects, this ending caught me off guard.  When I went looking for the history, I learned that one of the defects in question is called “amelia.”  “Amelia” the medical term has a completely different meaning and origin than “Amelia” the name.  Still, it made me wonder what other names share dictionary-space with words.

You know how Urban Dictionary has user-submitted definitions for just about every name?  Using and my handy old Funk & Wagnall’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (not so new – published 1993, and it doesn’t even contain a definition for salsa!), I’ve compiled a selection of people’s names that are also words.  Definitions are included! 

Abigail is a servant or lady’s maid.  This Biblical name currently ranks #7 in the U.S. and #51 in England and Wales.

Adonis is an exceptionally handsome young man.  Current U.S. rank: #702.

Amelia is a birth deformity characterized by one or more missing limbs.  Yikes!  The word derives from Greek, but the name has Germanic roots that mean “work.”  Amelia ranks #12 in America but is the #1 name in England and Wales. 

Benedict: Interestingly, while “benediction” means “blessing,” “benedict” refers to a recently married man, especially if his bachelorhood was long.  I read that this usage relates to misappropriation of “Benedick,” a character from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  151 boys in U.S., #341 in E/W.

Bobby is a policeman.  #738 in U.S., #67 in E/W.

Calliope is a kind of musical instrument also known as a steam organ.  In 2015, 218 girls were named Calliope in the U.S.


Carl: as a noun, “carl” can mean something like “serf” or “rustic.”  Current U.S. rank: #600.

Charlotte, which ranks #9 in the U.S. and #25 in England and Wales, is a kind of dessert served either hot or cold and that usually contains some kind of filling.  Fun fact – Charlotte Russe is both a clothing store and a dessert!

Don is an important (often Spanish or Italian) gentleman or the act of putting on an item of clothing.  114 boys in 2015.

Frank is adjective meaning honest or open.  Current rank: #355 in U.S.

Georgette is a kind of dull and sheer silk or rayon.  35 girls were named Georgette in 2015.

German means “closely related.”  German is not german to Germany.  153 boys were called German in 2015.

Harry: in the context of war, to “harry” is to pillage, plunder, or ravage.  This word also means “to harass.”  Harry is a far more popular name in the U.K. than U.S.  #3 in E/W, #781 in U.S.

Iris can refer to a part of the human eye, a flower, or rainbows.  #217 in U.S., #102 in E/W. 

Irises (Van Gogh)

Jehu is a fast driver.  32 American boys were named Jehu in 2015.

Job is an employment or task.  87 boys in 2015.

Julienne: When you have julienne vegetables, it means they’re presented in thinly-sliced strips.  29 girls were called Julienne in 2015.

Ken means “to understand.”  87 boys in 2015.

Lea is a meadow.  Current rank – #737 in U.S.

Margarita is a cocktail.  124 girls in 2015.

Marina is a place where small boats may dock safely.  #656 in U.S.

Peter means to diminish or trickle out.  #206 in U.S., #177 in E/W.

Phaethon is a kind of carriage or two-seating car.  You won’t see any baby Phaethons any time soon, but he was a character in Greek mythology!

Philander means “womanizer” in English, though in Ancient Greek it’s more like “friend of man.”  2004 was the last year that this name appeared in SSA birth data.

Phoebe is a kind of bird common to the U.S. east coast.  #286 in U.S., #22 in E/W.

Pippin is a kind of apple or a seed.  Curiously, this only appeared as girls’ name in 2015, with just 5 uses.

Pollyanna is someone who’s overly cheery or optimistic.  12 girls.

Ruth means “sorrow” or “regret.”  #293 in U.S., #455 in E/W. 

Timothy grass

Sibyl is a prophetess.  12 girls.

Timothy is a kind of grass.  #147 in U.S., #348 in E/W.

Victoria is a kind of carriage.  #20 in U.S., #92 in E/W.

Xanthippe – A nagging or ill-tempered woman.  Another mythological name you’re unlikely to see in real life, though I remembered it from a children’s alphabet book that probably came from Colonial Williamsburg.  Xanthippe was the wife of Socrates.

Are there any you’d add to this list?  Favorites?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

5 thoughts on “Words from Names: A Vocabulary

  1. Very informative site. I wish I had found it before I named my boys. We have a lot of interesting names and nick names in Germany, mostly though the same as American though with a very different pronunciation. My brother inlaw name is Jojo, (pr. yoyo), I know a Cordula (girls) and Simone (pr. Semoanee). Even my husbands name Andreas, which I still do not pronounce correctly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interessant! Cordula is exquisite.

      I myself come from German extraction. My American relatives’ names are strangely more German than those of our German cousins, many of whom have American/English names.


      1. I also come from German dissent and a family of strange names, like Otto and especially my Aunts; Florine, Mariam, Arlene, Correen and Ottilie -.Tschüß!

        Liked by 1 person

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