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Reviewed by:
  • Women's Names in Old English by Elisabeth Okasha
  • Stephanie Hollis
Okasha, Elisabeth , Women's Names in Old English (Studies in Early Medieval Britain), Farnham, Ashgate, 2011; hardback; pp. 150; R.R.P. £55.00; ISBN 9781409400103.

This is a narrowly focused linguistic study. Elisabeth Okasha bases her analysis on a corpus of 289 Old English names she has identified as female. Her corpus includes only the names of individuals referred to by a female pronoun and/ or designated by titles such as 'wife' or 'sister'. Most of the names in Okasha's corpus are compounds consisting of two name-elements (e.g., Æthel-thryth). Not only are there remarkably few female names in Okasha's corpus, the same name-elements tend to recur. There are only thirty-three second name-elements, and four of these are very frequently used (viz., -burg, -gyth, -swith, and -thryth). There are ninety first name-elements, but just sixteen of these are used to form five or more of the names in Okasha's corpus.

The author concludes that name-elements are not exclusively reserved for either male or female names. In other words, it appears from her study that there are no hard and fast principles for determining with absolute certainty solely from an Old English name whether the individual referred to was male or female. It is therefore possible that the gender of some individuals mentioned in Anglo-Saxon sources has been misconstrued. On the basis of the frequency with which name-elements occur, however, Okasha concludes that there were conventions, which perhaps we will never know, whereby Anglo-Saxons regarded some names as more suitable for women than men, and vice versa.

Okasha's study confirms the view that there is no consistent correlation between female grammatical gender and name-elements employed in names given to women. Nor does it seem that semantics has much bearing. Names [End Page 332] which have -wulf (wolf) as their second element are more likely to be male, but it is also common as a first element in female names. Other frequently occurring first name-elements in female names which Osaka considers semantically inappropriate for women are Ecg- (sword), Here- (army/battle), and Sige- (victory). Pagan Anglo-Saxons, I presume, thought otherwise.

To put that in other words, one of the ways in which we might come to an understanding of Anglo-Saxon naming practices is by discovering how they varied according to date and region. Fortunately, we can and should draw on the invaluable assistance of the online Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, which can also help to determine whether the frequency of certain name-elements merely reflects the frequency with which particular individuals are named in the historical record.

Stephanie Hollis
Department of English
The University of Auckland


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pp. 332-333
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