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The Bridgerton Names Show Off an Age-Old Cultural Bias

March 5, 2021 laurawattenberg 8 Comments

The Bridgerton Names Show Off an Age-Old Cultural Bias

March 5, 2021 LauraWattenberg 8 Comments
Photo of Bridgerton characters
Bridgerton cast members. Image: Netflix

The TV series Bridgerton offers up Regency romance with a modern sensibility. The aristocracy is multiracial, the orchestras play Taylor Swift, and a dashing nobleman can show up for a ball without proper neckwear. But even in this winking mashup of a historical setting, one cultural line cannot be crossed: No proper English lady or gentleman can bear a plain old English name.

Just take a look at the neatly alphabetized names of the Bridgerton family:


As a group, they’re historically unlikely. Only Anthony was even modestly common in the era leading up to the story’s setting. The others range from rare (Gregory) to unheard of (Hyacinth). But I’m prepared to cut fiction writers some slack when it comes to naming outside the norm. A large cast of names has to be distinguishable and memorable; they can’t all be John and Mary.

What interests me more about the Bridgerton names is that they’re simply not very English. A name like Benedict wears its Latin roots on its sleeve. Daphne is plucked from Greek mythology. And Francesca? That’s just straight-up Italian.

Where’s an Edwin? A Cuthbert? Something to root us proudly in English soil and the English language? Surely a Cuthbert would be at least as memorable as a Colin, and more realistic in Regency England.

This is case where etymology matters. The skewed collection of character names echoes an old tension between two sources of English common words. Words with Old English roots are seen as “plain speaking,” while imported vocabulary, typically Latinate, is considered “fancy.”

Linguist Lynne Murphy sums it up in her book The Prodigal Tongue:

“We say fabricate, laboratory, and transcribe (when we could have just kept saying make, workshop, and write down) because fancy Latinate words made educated English speakers feel knowledgeable and sophisticated.”

For as long as this elevation of imported vocabulary has existed, English writers have pushed back against it. In the 1500s, the phrase “inkhorn term” was coined to refer to an over-fussy erudite usage, with the idea that the term was so long you’d have to refill your quill at the inkhorn to complete it. Authors from Johnson to Dickens to Orwell have sung the praises of simple, English-driven English. Yet the bias toward the classical and imported persists, and spills over into given names.

Writers today draw on our linguistic prejudice to conjure an aristocratic past, an imagined world of formal elegance. A prosaic name doesn’t help an elevated character take flight in our imaginations. The result is an ironic principle: to summon up a literary England, avoid sounding too English.

The more a story seeks to sweep readers up into a dream world, the stronger this principle holds. In the genre of historical romance, the avoidance of simple English names routinely overrides historical accuracy. The name Sebastian, for instance, was a rarity in Regency England but is overwhelmingly popular in modern imaginings of the period.

Would we really want it any other way? Imagine the Bridgerton brood with names that are plausible to the period and plainly, characteristically English (in historical usage, if not etymology). Names like these:


Do the plain English names succeed in conjuring a world of glittering balls and romantic intrigue? Or are imported names still the stuff that dreams are made of?


Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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  • Nicw March 7, 2021 at 6:41 am

    I wonder if this could be an example of a larger: english/euro American co-opting other cultures’ specs and without a natural nod or regard for their original affinity. Making them seem MORE fitting on someone who looks English or “fresh, forward and swept romantic” as have other aspects have been… Identity without attribution, is one thing. Self flattery that everything could be better Anglo owned is another.

  • Iris March 7, 2021 at 8:53 pm

    I see your point, but Jane Austen’s sister was Cassandra (Greek name) and she used some Greek names for her characters: Sophia, Penelope, Diana. So Daphne doesn’t seem to be out of place there.
    And Isabella (from the novel Emma) is also straight up Italian.

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg March 7, 2021 at 9:46 pm

      Surprisingly, Isabella isn’t just straight up Italian! It was used in several different languages, and Isabella of France was England’s Queen and Regent back in the 13th Century. Isabella was a perfectly likely name in Regency England–the 1841 England Census counts 37,139 English-born Isabellas. (Compare to 3 Francescas, 2 Hyacinths and 2 Daphnes.)

      But your point is well taken, there were certainly Classical names used in England. It’s not so much their presence as the absence of characteristically English names that stands out in modern Regency fiction. In comparison, Jane Austen’s character names mirrored the general English population very closely:

  • lucubratrix March 18, 2021 at 9:51 pm

    If I were naming the Bridgerton sibset (including the character stereotypes), I would have ended up with:
    Alistair (although Ambrose would be my favorite Regency romance hero name, I think it’s too fanciful for the eldest character)
    Filomena or Florence – we don’t know much about the character yet
    Giles although I’m least pleased with this
    Hortensia ?

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg March 19, 2021 at 12:41 am

      Ooh, Giles is excellent! Uncommon but realistic for the period, and elegant to the modern ear. And to my surprise, there were women some named Florence in Regency England, well before Florence Nightingale popularized the name. FWIW none of Alistair, Cedric, Filomena and Hortensia appear in the English census for the period.

      Trying to find the intersection of style, realism, and the traits of the specific characters is incredibly challenging. (I could definitely see Eloise as an Eleanor, though!) More nicknaming could help, especially to convey relationships between characters. It’s hard to imagine siblings of the period using full names as long as Benedict and Hyacinth for one another.

      • lucubratrix March 29, 2021 at 7:29 am

        Yep, this was just going by “does it feel sweepingly romantic enough”, not any attempt at capturing historical accuracy. I think nicknames would definitely be key — although the siblings of my 4-syllable-named child really enjoy drawing out all the syllables with whiny effect when throwing peas at the table or bellowing up the stairs (just like in Bridgerton).

        No Cedric? Really? It just feels like such an old trusty name from Ivanhoe. Cuthbert actually works in a heroic sort of way for me, but also Cornelius maybe?

  • HungarianNameGeek
    HungarianNameGeek March 27, 2021 at 6:43 pm

    The imported=fancy/native=simple dichotomy is not unique to English. Neither is the pushback against imported words or the preference for native vocabulary: I think every culture has some version of the idea that native words are more true, real, or honest than the imported ones (or the newly-imported ones, anyway). It’s an aspect of nationalism.

    I can’t offhand think of an English example of the native-over-imported push applying to names. Hungarian is full of them: Janka (originally a masculine nickname) instead of Johanna, Józsa (another masculine nickname) for Josefa, Jenő (the name of an ancient tribe) revived as a Hungarianization of Eugene, with the latter’s actually-historically-evolved Hungarian form, Ödön, getting artificially associated with Edmund, Rezső (a family name of unknown origins) applied as a “translation” of Rudolf, and so forth and so on. I know that Polish and other Slavic languages have similar stories of weird name associations in the name of nationalism. Are there any in English?

  • Emmeline April 14, 2021 at 1:52 pm

    I agree that names meant to sound “romantic” often sound out of place. An interesting contrast to Bridgerton though would be Downton Abbey (not Regency but certainly a fantasy), which its trio of Mary, Edith and Sybil. The one I’m really surprised they used was Mary, though of course it would have been perfectly likely in the period.

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