Clues to Britain’s Catholic Past

What’s in a ‘Christian’ Name?

The English school application form stopped me dead in my tracks. What was my son’s ‘Christian’ name?

It was long ago in the U.S. that we abandoned this terminology, ostensibly for fear of offending non-Christians. (As a result, many Americans now invent their children’s first names out of whole cloth, with lamentable results. Or name them after celebrities. Actually, sometimes it’s hard to decide which is worse.)

Digressions aside, what exactly, is a Christian name? My Anglican friends think this a very strange question, until I point out that Christian names are actually saints’ names, or biblical names.

Names are manifestations of a culture. For centuries, Catholics, orthodox Christians and many Protestants have given their children the names of saints. This was done as a religious talisman and also as a life-long reminder of the careers of these successful Christians. In some countries people celebrated the feast days of their name saints in lieu of their ‘birth’ days.

Despite reformation and secularism, it is a sign of the ongoing English respect for Christian tradition that the country’s most popular baby names in 2012 still derive from these Catholic sources. It may be a sign that most of us don’t know history that ‘Oliver’ — the third most popular name for boys — is the name of the last Catholic martyr in England (see chart).

Interestingly, the other five of the six top baby names in England are foreign – French, Spanish, Belgian, German and Jewish – saints.  Perhaps this is another cultural clue, harkening back to a time when England was part of an international Catholic civilization?

So, here’s the full Catholic treatment for the top six baby names in England in 2012:


2012   Popular Baby Name* The   Saint’s Story The   Saint in Art
  1.   Harry
From St. Henry, Holy Roman Emperor from   1014-1024, the only German monarch ever to be canonized.                                                                    St Henry     
  1.   Jack
From St. John. There are more than 70 saints by   this name, derived from John the Baptist (Jesus’s cousin, depicted right, by   El Greco) or John the Evangelist, one of the four Gospel writers.     Jack
  1.   Oliver
St.   Oliver Plunkett, archbishop of Ireland. On   1 July 1681 (aged 51), Plunkett became the last Roman Catholic martyr to die in England when   he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.     Oliver
  1.   Amelia
From   Saint Amalberga   of Maubeuge, a Belgian who was the mother of five saints; she died in 773.   There have been several other saints with this name since.     amelia
  1.   Lily
From   Saint Liliosa, a lay woman in Moorish- controlled 9th   century Cordoba, Spain. Lily was cruelly martyred for   appearing in public with her face exposed during the persecutions of Caliph Abderraham II.     Lily
  1.   Emily
St. Emily de Vialar, Foundress of the   Sisters of St. Joseph “of the   Apparition” in France. She is the patron saint of single women and neglected   children.  She died in 1856.       Emily

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