Surnames as first names are hot property where baby names are concerned, and it's not hard to see why. They offer a different array of name choices, but are also highly familiar, historic and may even be used to honour family members. On the blog I have already looked at many different types of patronymic surnames ("son of father's name"), and I have even looked at the metronymic surnames ("son of mother's name"). But whether they are derived from the mother or father, both types have one inherent element in common: they both contain the masculine element "son" somewhere in the name.
There are, however, a selection of surnames that started life as a feminine first name. I often wonder how influential or bold these medieval women were to have their descendants derive their identity from them, rather than the men of the family.
Here is a selection of female-derived surnames that, unlike metronymic surnames, contain no "son" element, and have potential to cross the surname-firstname divide.
As a surname, Ames is taken from the name Amice, which was remarkably popular in medieval Britain. Amice was the vernacular form of Amicia, most likely derived from the Latin amicus "friend," and the name of an obscure medieval saint. The similar sounding Avice was also used in the Middle Ages, and led to the surname Avis.
Amelot, Emblem, Emblin, Emblen and Amblin are all surnames which derive from Emmeline. The Old Germanic form of the name, Amelina, became Emeline / Ameline in Old French. Both acquired the popular -ot diminutive ending, leading to the names Amelot, Emelot and Emblott.
The surname Aylett is an inheritant of Ailith, Aileth, Ayleth and a range of variants derived originally from the Saxon name Æðelgýð, from æðel "noble" and gyð "battle, combat."
Back in the Middle Ages, Isabel was much the big hit that it is today. Its use can be attested in the multitude of diminutive forms that were used; Bel, Belet, Bibb, Bibby, Ebb, Ebbot, Ibbet, Ibbelot and Tibb are just the tip of the iceberg. Bellett, Bibbey, Ebbets, Ibbott and Tibbets still survive today in surname form.
The surname Claris was once the given name Clarice, the French form of Clara which was brought to Britain by the Normans and used, not uncommonly, in the 12th and 13th century. Like Clara, it derives from the Latin clarus meaning "bright, clear, shining," and was Latinised in records as Claricia.
You would be forgiven for thinking that Eadie was a derivative of Edith, but, in fact, it comes from a now obsolete medieval gem, Ediva. As an Anglo-Saxon descendant, Ediva's original form was Éadgifu, composed of the elements ead "rich, blessed" and gifu "gift." Eady is a variant.
Adela and Adelina, Old Germanic names derived from adal "noble," came over to Britain with the Normans. Previously they had been used by European royalty, and William the Conqueror himself used Adela for one of his daughters. Adelina is most likely the origin of the surnames Alin and Aling, while the spelling Edelina, thought to have been influenced by indigenous Saxon names beginning with the Old English cognate Æðel-, is the origin of the surname Edlin.
Effeney, Effeny and Effany are surname forms of Euphemia, a Greek name derived from ευ (eu) "good" and φημι (phemi) "to speak", meaning "auspicious words." It was a term used for religious services, but later came to mean "laudable, honourable, reputable, to be spoken well of." As the name of early saints and martyrs, it was popular in medieval Europe. In Britain it was commonly spelt Eufemia, and used in the vernacular forms Eufemme, Effam and Effan. If you would prefer a softer sound, the original 'm' is preserved in the alternate surname form Effemy.
In some cases, Ellery is a form of the masculine name Hillary / Hilarius, but in others it is certainly derived from Eulalia, from the Greek εὔλαλος (eulalos) "sweetly-speaking." As the name of a virgin saint, the name was not uncommon in medieval Europe. In Britain it was found in the forms Eularia, Elaria and Ilaria. In France, Eulalia became the surname Aulaire.
Elvy and Elvey originally derived from the name Elviva / Alviva, a Latinised form of the Old English name Ælfgifu (ælf "elf" and gifu "gift") and possibly Æðelgifu (æðel "noble" and gifu "gift"). Both were popular Anglo-Saxon names, and were borne by several women of royalty and nobility.
Emeny, Emeney, Emmony, Emmence, Emmens and Emney are all surnames derived from the mysterious medieval name Ismena. The name was used in various forms in the Middle Ages, including: Isemeine, Ismeina, Ismenia, Ysmena, Imania, Imayne, Imeyna, Emony and Ymanie. The origins are very obscure, though one very plausible theory links in to the Celtic *moyni- "treasure."* It is possibly the same origin as Ismay, also used as a feminine name, and which survives as the surname Ismay.
Back in the Middle Ages, your were far more likely to meet a woman named Julian than a man. This was all thanks to St Julian of Norwich, a popular medieval saint who took her name from the church in which she was anchoress. To distinguish masculine and feminine in records, women were often recorded as Juliana in Latin texts, and many of these examples are also recorded in the diminutive form Joetta / Juetta. The diminutives eventually led to the surnames Jowett, Jowitt, Jewitt and Juett.
No prizes for guessing which name Lauret derives from. Lauretta and Loretta were used in the 12th and 13th century as a diminutive of Laura. Laurentia, a feminine form of Laurence and also derived from the Latin laurus "laurel," was also in use at the time and most likely added to the creation of the surnames Lauret, Lorett and Lorette.
Mary arrived in Britain in the 11th century, and by the 13th it had developed a multitude of diminutive forms, including Malle, Molle, Malet, Malot, Marion, Mariot, Marekyn, Malekyn and Malyn. The short form Malle led to the very usable surname Malin, while the pet-name Marion became the surname Malyan or Malyon. Other Mary-derived surnames include Mariott, Malkin, Mallot and Mollet.
A rather sweet medieval name that has become lost over the centuries is Sely. The name derived from the Old English sælig "happy, blessed, fortunate" and was used as both a nickname (most likely for a cheery person) and as baptismal name for women. It survives today in the surnames Sealey, Sealy, Seely, Selly, Ceely, Cely, Zealey and Zelley .
The names Sibyl and Sybil, from the Ancient Greek Sibylla (Σιβυλλα) "prophetess," came to Britain with the Normans and were used quite popularly throughout the Middle Ages. The common vernacular form of the name was Sibley, from which the surnames Sibley, Sibly and Sebley derive.
The Latin name Cecilia, from the Roman gens Caecilus (caecus "blind"), was a popular name in the Middle Ages thanks to the semi-legendary St Cecilia, the Roman martyr who later became regarded as the patron saint of music. The name was brought to Britain by the Normans and commonly found in the vernacular forms Cicely, Cecily and Sisley. Siss, Sisley and Sicely are derived surnames.