April 23, 1016: People Used to Have Goofy Names!

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A Brief History

On April 23, 1016, Edmund Ironside was crowned King of England, replacing his father Aethelred the Unready.

Digging Deeper

Names used to mean more than just something looked up in a book or passed down from your parents.

People used to earn their names based on where they lived, what they looked like or what they accomplished.

Of course, it is easiest for us in the United States to understand English names, but other societies have named people the same way.  Surely the kings noted above had “ironsides” and was “unready” for something, and the Indian (Native American) chief, Man Afraid of His Horse probably had a little equine phobia going on.

Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses, 1884

Names like Smith (metal worker), Farmer and Miller denoted the family occupation.  President Eisenhower got his name from the German for “iron hewer.”

(Note: We do not know how Darryl Strawberry’s family got their name.) Remember the Kevin Costner movie where he is named “Dances With Wolves” by his Native American friends?  The movie might have done somewhat worse if he had danced with “skanks!”

Theatrical release poster

Getting back to kings and such, some names were pretty cool, like Attila the Hun also known as “The Scourge of God.”  Some names were not so cool.  Take the king of France, Pepin the Short, who happened to be married to Bertha With the Big Feet. (Seriously, how big were they?) Aethelred who just was not ready was preceded by Edward the Martyr and Edward the Peaceful.   I would rather be known as The Peaceful.  Also in Merrie Olde England was Harold Harefoot, grandson of Sweyn Forkbeard.  (Luckily, there were no Mary Zitfaces that I know of.)  Edward the Confessor (must have done a lot of bad things) and William the Bastard came later.  Apparently, Edward Longshanks had to buy “tall” sized pants, and for some reason Richard Cromwell was known as Tumbledown Dick.

Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral ale of his father Harald Bluetooth. Painting by Lorenz Frølich, c. 1883–86, Frederiksborg Castle.

France gave us Clothar the Old and Clovis the Lazy, and Charles the Fat. Must have been hard times in France!  Things continued in the not so good way with kings like Louis the Debonaire, Charles the Bald and Louis the Stammerer.  Charles the Simple was probably not too complicated, n’est-ce pas?

Charles the Bald in old age; picture from his Psalter

It might be a good idea to find a wife named Baker or Cook, but not so much a doctor named Butcher, Slaughter or Bonebreaker. And what is the deal with two first names for your first and last name?  John Wayne, Barney Frank, Ray Charles, can they not afford a last name?  Why do assassins always seem to have three names?  Except of course Sirhan Sirhan, which is an entirely new line of questions…

Mug shot taken on May 23, 1969

By now you are probably wondering, “What does Zarzeczny mean?”  I have been told it means something like “riverside” or “river edge” in Polish, as my father’s ancestors apparently lived by a river.  Thank goodness they did not live next to an insane asylum or I might be Dr. NuthouseQuestion for students (and subscribers): What does your name mean?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Rose, Christine.  Nicknames: Past and Present.  CR Publications, 2007.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.