What’s in a Nantucket name?

“What’s in a name!” Juliet to Romeo
“With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.” Humpty-Dumpty to Alice

A study of the Barney Genealogical Record (hereinafter referred to as BGR) reveals that faddish names for newborns is not an entirely new phenomenon. Our forebears, however, displayed an uncanny range of educated sophistication in the naming of their babies. As a newly fledged onomastician (onomastics is the science or study of the origins and forms of proper names of persons or places), I have elected to classify the naming of Nantucket babies in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries thus: BIBLICAL, CLASSICAL/ROMANTIC-POETIC, QUAKER, YANKEE VICTORIAN, IMAGINATIVE, NOVELISTIC, AND ZOOLOGICAL.

BIBLICAL The obvious biblical names occur in almost every family recorded in the BGRSarah, Jesse, Ruth, Rebecca, Ezra, Jacob, Reuben, Nathaniel, Elihu, Ebenezer, Bathsheba, Mehitabel, Obed, Zenas, et al—but the people in those families really read their Bibles. However else would they have come up with these names for their boys: Benoni, Shubael, Zebulon, Achsah, Bazaleel, Barachiah, Asenath, Cephas (Jesus’ name for Peter, cephas being the Aramaic word for “rock”; Peter from the Greek petros), Barzillai (meaning “made of iron”). And the girls’ names: Apphia, Tamar, Merab, Percis (a misspelling of Persis?). We find many little girls named after poor old Job’s first two daughters, Jemima and Kezia, but none after the third daughter, Kerenhappuch. Why? We wonder if Eldad Tupper was really supposed to be named for Job’s good friend Bildad. Thomas and Dinah Starbuck had six sons and named them after the twelve tribes of Israel: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah (leaving out Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, and Naphtali) and picking up again with Joseph and Benjamin. Triplets born to Mr. and Mrs. John Barker in 1839 were named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; unhappily, they did not survive for a single day.

QUAKER The Compact Bible Dictionary (Zondervan Publishing House, a Division of HarperCollins) tells us that in Patriarchal times (i.e., before the time of Moses) names were seen as “indicators of character, function, or destiny.” Perhaps the Friends saw names in the same light when they called their little baby boys and girls Provided, Wealthy, Content, Prudence, Endowed, Love, Temperance, Pleasant, and Desire. Abiah Folger’s two older sisters were Patience and Experience. In 1778 Zaccheus Coffin married Thankful Joy of Martha’s Vineyard. And what did life hold for the young man named Pardon Tinkham?

CLASSICAL/ROMANTIC-POETIC We know that pre-TV Nantucketers were extremely well read and that Greek and Latin texts were read as much for pleasure as for educational achievement. The Romantic poets—Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge—were household icons. (We are properly grateful to David Joy and his chums for establishing in 1820 the Nantucket Mechanics Social Library Association, and sub­sequently the Atheneum.) So it is not surprising that classical and literary names such as Horatio, Telemachus, Orlando, Leander, Electa (but no Electra; too racy?), Lysander, Lucretia, Ginevra, Minerva, Niobe, Lydia, and Clarissa popped up in the bap­tismal registers.

IMAGINATIVE Consulting the above-mentioned Bible dictionary, the Oxford Classical Dictionary, and the Oxford Companion Guide to English Literature didn’t help to identify Desclamia, Elthina, Delphina, Zulema, Musidora, Alvaretta, or Verlinda (all girls); I shall continue to search, but I prefer to believe the parents were simply being creative (and poetic and romantic). Barzillai and Mary Gardner’s firstborn daughter was Delphina, but their second daughter must have been a real beauty, because they named her Flora Dulcibella.

YANKEE VICTORIAN The BGR begins to thin out toward the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and the names recorded, say, after the Civil War, tend to be bland, Yankee-ish: Huldah, Avis, Harriet, Gertrude, Clara, Adeline, Etta, Herman, Emeline, Arthur, George, Frank. Those up-front Americans Milo and Maria Stanton, however, named their children California, Texas, Carson, Florida May, and Minnesota.

NOVELISTIC Because it’s hard to believe these names could be found except in a bad novel: Belvidere Plane, Wickliffe Chadwick, Powhattan Bagnell, and Marmaduke Coffin. Also, not found in the BGR, but applying for membership in the Grand Army of the Republic, 1891–92, were Orestes Augustus Bronson Tracy and Dusenburg Rancour, neither of them born on Nantucket, but resident here after the Civil War.

ZOOLOGICAL The thought of a Mary Pigeon is evocative. And it is to be hoped that sometime around 1800 Mr. Thomas Mackerel may have strolled down to the wharf to greet a newcomer from Rhode Island with the most remarkable name of all: Preserved Fish.


Excerpt from “What’s in a name!” by Elizabeth Oldham, Historic Nantucket, Winter 1998, Vol. 47, No. 1

The mission of the Nantucket Historical Association is to tell the inspiring stories of Nantucket through its collections, programs, and properties.

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