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26 First Names That Ended up in the Dictionary

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Almost everybody’s first name means something. Adam means "man," as do Charles, Karl, and even Charlotte. Deborah and Melissa both mean "honeybee." Hilary means "hilarious." William means "desire-helmet." 

Sometimes, however, through some quirk of etymology—and sometimes entirely by coincidence—first names like these find their way into the dictionary as words in their own right, and end up ultimately taking on whole new meanings in the language.

1. ABIGAIL

In the Old Testament, Abigail is described as “a woman of good understanding and beautiful countenance.” Her husband Nabal, on the other hand, is “churlish and evil," and when he offends a group of King David’s men, Abigail tries to defuse the situation by offering her services as David’s personal handmaiden. After Nabal discovers what his wife has done, he promptly dies of a heart attack, leaving David free to marry Abigail and make her Queen of Israel. Leaving the Biblical soap opera aside, it’s Abigail’s selflessness and her willingness to offer herself into the king’s service that led to her name ending up in the dictionary as a byword for a female servant or handmaiden.

2. ANDREW

Derived from Greek, Andrew is another first name that simply means “man,” making it an etymological cousin of words like anthropology, androgeny, and philanthropy. In this literal sense, Andrew has been used since the early 18th century in English as another name for a manservant or assistant (the male equivalent of an Abigail), while a merry-andrew is an old 17th century name for a court jester or clown.

3. ANNA

Anna is an old Hindi word for a coin worth 1/16th of an Indian rupee that, during the British rule of India in the 19th century, dropped into colloquial English as a nickname for a small portion of something. Anna is also the name of a species of hummingbird native to the Pacific coast of North America, named for the wife of amateur naturalist François Massena, Duke of Rivoli (1799-1863), who discovered it in the early 19th century.

4. AVA

As well as being the name of a Polynesian liquor (in which case it’s pronounced “aah-va,” not “ay-va”), ava is also an old Scots word meaning “above all” or “in particular,” formed simply from the words “of all” running together over time. In this sense, it appears fairly regularly in 18th and 19th century Scottish literature, most notably in the works of the Scots poet Robert Burns.

5. EMMA

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, emma can be used “in telephone communications and in the oral transliteration of code” to represent the letter M. Originally used only in military contexts, after the First World War emma—along with a handful of others, like pip (P), ack (A), and toc (T)—slipped into occasional use in everyday English. So when P.G. Wodehouse wrote of “twelve pip emma” in A Pelican At Blandings (1969), he was referring to 12pm.

6. ERIC

An eric is a “blood-fine,” namely compensation paid by an attacker or murderer to his victim or victim’s family. Derived from an old Irish word, eiric, this tradition of quite literally paying for your crimes dates back into ancient history in its native Ireland but wasn’t encountered in English until the 16th century, when the English playwright Edmund Spenser explained in his Two Histories of Ireland (1599) that, “in the case of murder, the judge would compound between the murderer and the friends of the party murdered … that the malefactor shall give unto them, or to the child or wife of him that is slain, a recompense, which they call an erick.”

7. GEORGE

A George can be a loaf of bread, a one-year prison sentence, a kind of wig, an earthenware jug or bowl, an aircraft’s autopilot system, and an expression of surprise. It can also be any one of a number of coins and currencies, including a dollar bill or a quarter, both of which depict George Washington; an old English guinea, issued during the reigns of George I, George II, and George III; and a Tudor coin or “noble,” worth around 80 pence, which bore an image of St. George.

8. HARRY

As a verb, harry means to pester or attack, but it can also be used to mean to lay waste to something, to drag or pull something around roughly, and even to steal eggs from a bird’s nest. In the 18th century, it was also a nickname for a country bumpkin or “a rude boor” according to one Victorian dictionary, while in the Middle Ages it was used as a rider’s call to spur a horse forward.

9. HELENA

In Greek mythology, Helen (or Helena in Latin) was the sister of Castor and Pollux, the twin brothers who inspired the constellation Gemini and gave their names to its two brightest stars. Among sailors in Tudor England, the twins’ names came to be used of dual shooting stars or mysterious flashes of light seen at sea, while a single light or "corposant"—a glowing electrical haze seen around the mast of a ship during a thunderstorm—was nicknamed a Helena.

10. HENRY

The henry is the SI unit of electrical inductance. If you’re a physicist you’ll need to know that one henry is equal to the inductance of a circuit in which an electromotive force of one volt is produced by a current changing at the rate of one ampere per second. If you’re not a physicist, all you need to know that it was named in honor of the American scientist Joseph Henry (1797-1878).

11. ISABELLA

Also called isabelline, Isabella is the name of a greyish shade of pale yellow often used to describe the color of sandy-haired horses, or else encountered in the names of creatures like the Isabelline shrike and the Isabella tiger moth. How it came to earn its name is debatable, but one popular anecdote claims that it comes from Isabella of Austria, a 17th century archduchess whose father, Philip II of Spain, besieged the Belgian city of Ostend in 1601. According to the tale, Isabella was so confident of her father’s military prowess that she jokingly announced that she intended not to change her clothes until the siege was ended. Unfortunately for her, it went on to last another three years, and ultimately her name came to be associated with the yellowish, slightly off-white color of dirty underwear. Sadly, this tale has since been proven entirely untrue as the Oxford English Dictionary have now traced the earliest record of Isabella to one year before the siege even took place, when a “rounde gowne of Isabella-colour satten set with silver spangles” was listed in an inventory of the contents of Queen Elizabeth I’s wardrobe in 1600.

12. JACOB

The Biblical tale of Jacob’s ladder—a vast staircase to Heaven, dreamt of by Jacob in the Book of Genesis (28:10-19)—led to criminals who used ladders to break into houses being nicknamed jacobs in 19th century slang.

13. JAMES

Gim or jimp is an old Tudor word variously used to mean "smart," "elegant," or "befitting." In the 18th century, gim became gimmy or jemmy, which was used to describe anything particularly dextrous or well-designed for its purpose. Based on this, in the early 19th century, criminals began nicknaming their housebreaking tools jemmies, and because "Jemmy" is an old pet form of James, james came to be used as another name for a crowbar in Victorian English. (It’s also an old name for a boiled sheep’s head served as a meal, but where that association came from is anyone’s guess.)

14. JESSE

In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah predicts that “there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots, and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” (11:1-2). His words are usually interpreted as prophesizing that one of Jesse’s descendants will one day become a divinely ordained ruler, and true enough the New Testament Gospel of Matthew lists Jesse as the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Jesus. Based on Isaiah’s prophecy, in the Middle Ages, the name Jesse became another word for a family tree or a genealogical diagram, while his line that “there shall come forth a rod out of Jesse” apparently inspired the Victorian schoolyard phrase to catch Jesse or to give someone Jesse, which meant to be caned.

15. JOHN

Of all first names to have found their way into the dictionary, John is probably the most fruitful. It can refer to a policeman, a butler or a manservant, a priest, an Englishman, a toilet, a signature, a plant, an unknown or otherwise unnamed person, a cuckold or hen-pecked husband, and even the client of a prostitute. The vast majority of all these meanings are probably derived from nothing more than the fact that John is such a common name, but its use as another name for a policeman is based on an English corruption of the French gendarme, while as a signature it’s famously derived from John Hancock, the Governor of Massachusetts whose elaborately written name dwarfs all of the others on the Declaration of Independence.

16. LUKE

Luke is a 13th century word essentially meaning "moderately" or "half-heartedly." So as well as being lukewarm, you can be luke-hot and luke-heartedLukeness is an old 15th century word for indifference or apathy.

17. MATILDA

The Australian folksong Waltzing Matilda tells the story of an itinerant “swagman” (traveller) who sets up camp “by a billabong,” “under the shade of a coolabah tree.” There he steals and kills a “jumbuck” (sheep), before drowning himself when the “squatter” (sheep-farmer) and three “troopers” (policemen) confront him. It ends with the famous line, “and his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong: ‘Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?’” The song is renowned for its use of traditional Australian vocabulary, including the two words in its title: Here waltzing doesn’t mean dancing, but rather wandering or journeying, and Matilda isn’t the name of the swagman’s sweetheart, but his backpack.

18. MOLLY

A molly can be a fruit-picker’s basket, an Irishwoman, a prostitute or working class woman, a weak or effeminate man (the molly in mollycoddle, incidentally), and, in 18th century slang at least, a man who “concerns himself with women’s affairs.” It’s also a nickname for the northern fulmar, a seabird of the Arctic, Atlantic, and North Pacific Oceans, in which case it probably derives from an old Dutch word, mallemok, meaning “foolish gull.”

19. REBECCA

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the girl’s name Rebecca can be used as a verb to mean “to demolish a gate.” In this sense it derives from the Rebecca Riots, a series of demonstrations in southwest Wales in the early 1840s in which groups of so-called “Rebecca gangs” attacked and demolished a series of tollgates in protest at the high charges being imposed. The gangs took their name from the Old Testament's Rebecca, who is blessed with the words “let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them” in the Book of Genesis (24:60).

20. ROBERT

Robert is an old English nickname for the European robin or “robin redbreast,” probably derived from a corruption of the Dutch nickname rode-baard, meaning “red-beard.” It’s also an early 20th century nickname for a restaurant waiter, in which case it comes from a series of comic tales published in Punch magazine in the late 1800s written by the Victorian writer J.T. Bedford (1812-1900) under the pseudonym “Robert, A City Waiter.”

21. SAM

No one quite knows why, but in 19th century American slang, to stand Sam meant to settle a bill, or to pay for someone else’s food or drink. As a verb, sam is also an old English dialect word meaning to clot or thicken, or to come together as a group.

22. SARAH

Sarah is 1950s military slang for a portable radio used by pilots who have been forced to crash-land to transmit their position to rescue ships and other aircraft. It’s an acronym of “search and rescue and homing.”

23. STEVEN

Steven is an old English dialect word for your voice, ultimately derived from the Old English word for a command or order, stefn. It can also be used to mean a great outcry or raucous argument, while to do something in one steven means to do it in absolute agreement with everyone else.

24. TOBY

For some unknown reason, toby is an old 17th century slang name for the buttocks. It’s also the name of a type of pottery jug bearing a grotesque caricature, a cheap cigar, a machine used to print designs on textiles, and a type of pleated collar popular in the 19th century. Among Victorian criminals toby was also a slang name for a road—highway robbery was nicknamed the toby concern, while to ply the toby meant to rob coaches or travellers on horseback.

25. TONY

Tony was a reddish-brown color popular amongst fashion designers and dressmakers in the 1920s and '30s. Before that, in the late 19th century it was used an adjective to mean “stylish” or “smart,” presumably in the sense of something striking a good “tone.”

26. VICTORIA

Victoria is the Latin word for victory, which in the Middle Ages was “employed as a shout of triumph,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The name has since also been applied to a golden sovereign minted in the 19th century, a species of domestic pigeon, a type of water lily, a woollen fabric, a type of plum, and a two-seater horse-drawn carriage with a collapsible roof, all of which are named in honor of Queen Victoria.

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Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain
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History
The Time the Oxford English Dictionary Forgot a Word
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain

When the complete edition of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary debuted in 1928, it was lauded as a comprehensive collection of the English language, a glossary so vast—and so thorough—that no other reference book could ever exceed its detail or depth. In total, the project took seven decades to catalogue everything from A to Z, defining a total of 414,825 words. But in the eyes of its editor James Murray, the very first volume of the dictionary was something of an embarrassment: It was missing a word.

Looking back, it’s impressive that more words were not lost. Assembling the OED was a nightmare. Before the first volume—an installment consisting of words beginning with the letters A and B—was published in 1888, multiple editors had taken (and abandoned) the helm, and each regime change created new opportunities for mayhem. When James Murray took command in 1879, the Oxford English Dictionary could best be defined by the word disarray.

The irony of making this massive reference book was that it required millions upon millions of tiny, tiny pieces of paper. Every day, volunteers mailed in thousands of small strips of paper called “quotation slips.” On these slips, volunteers would copy a single sentence from a book, in hopes that this sentence could help illuminate a particular word’s meaning. (For example, the previous sentence might be a good example of the word illuminate. Volunteers would copy that sentence and mail it to Oxford’s editors, who would review it and compare the slip to others to highlight the word illuminate.)

The process helped Oxford’s editors study all of the shades of meaning expressed by a single word, but it was also tedious and messy. With thousands of slips pouring into the OED’s offices every day, things could often go wrong.

And they did.

Some papers were stuffed haphazardly into boxes or bags, where they gathered cobwebs and were forgotten. Words beginning with Pa went missing for 12 years, only to be recovered in County Cavan, Ireland, where somebody was using the papers as kindling. Slips for the letter G were nearly burned with somebody’s trash. In 1879, the entire letter H turned up in Italy. At one point, Murray opened a bag only to find a family of live mice chewing on the paperwork.

When Murray took over, he tried to right the ship. To better organize the project, he built a small building of corrugated iron called the “Scriptorium.” It resembled a sunken tool shed, but it was here—with the help of 1029 built-in pigeonholes—that Murray and his subeditors arranged, sorted, and filed more than a thousand incoming slips every day. Millions of quotations would pass through the Scriptorium, and hundreds of thousands of words would be neatly organized by Murray’s trusty team.

One word, however, slipped through the cracks.

Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Media Specialist, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Bondmaid is not the kind of word people drop during conversation anymore, and that’s for the best: It means “a slave girl.” The word was most popular in the 16th century. Murray’s file for bondmaid, however, reached back even further: It included quotations as old as William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible.

But then bondmaid went missing. “Its slips had fallen down behind some books, and the editors had never noticed that it was gone,” writes Simon Winchester in The Meaning of Everything. When the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1888, bondmaid wasn’t there. (That volume of the OED does miss other words, but those exclusions were deliberate matters of editorial policy—bondmaid is the only word that the editors are known to have physically lost.)

When the slips were later rediscovered in the Scriptorium, Murray reportedly turned red with embarrassment. By 1901, some 14 years after the exclusion, he was still reeling over the mistake in a draft of a letter addressed to an anonymous contributor: “[N]ot one of the 30 people (at least) who saw the work at various stages between MS. and electrotyped pages noticed the omission. The phenomenon is absolutely inexplicable, and with our minute organization one would have said absolutely impossible; I hope also absolutely unparalleled.”

All was not lost for the lost word, however. In 1933, bondmaid made its Oxford dictionary debut. It had taken nearly five decades to make the correction.

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10 Fascinating Facts About The Thesaurus

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. ITS NAME COMES FROM THE GREEK WORD FOR TREASURE.

Greek lettering.
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Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean treasure! It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. YOU CAN CALL THEM THESAURUSES OR THESAURI.

Row of old books lined up.
iStock

How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses, octopi, and octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. EARLY THESAURUSES WERE REALLY DICTIONARIES.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
iStock

Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes' books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A GREEK HISTORIAN WROTE THE FIRST BOOK OF SYNONYMS.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
iStock

Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. AN EARLY SANSKRIT THESAURUS WAS IN THE FORM OF A POEM.

Sanskrit lettering.
iStock

In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A BRITISH DOCTOR WROTE THE FIRST MODERN THESAURUS.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. THE THESAURUS HAS A SURPRISING LINK TO A MATHEMATICAL TOOL.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY HAS ITS OWN HISTORICAL THESAURUS.

Synonyms for "love."
iStock

In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. ONE ARTIST TURNED HIS LOVE OF WORDS INTO A SERIES OF THESAURUS PAINTINGS.

Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004.
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. THERE'S AN URBAN THESAURUS FOR ALL YOUR SLANG SYNONYM NEEDS.

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course! The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

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