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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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-hearted. Lukeness is an old 15th century word for indifference or apathy.
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.
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.”
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).
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.