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?