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What do the names of British kings and queens actually mean?
King Wealth-Guard, Queen Bitterness, and King Desire-Helmet, for starters
Well hello, Queen God-Is-My-Oath.
Well hello, Queen God-Is-My-Oath. Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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an you imagine if the kings and queen of Britain of the 20th and 21st centuries were called King Farmer, King Wealth-Guard, Queen God-Is-My-Oath, and (coming up) King Freeman and King Desire-Helmet?

Well, guess what? They are. You just didn't know it because their names are modified (sometimes heavily modified) versions of Greek, Germanic, and Hebrew originals. In fact, only one of their names traces back to Old English. Only one, of all the names of kings and queens of England!

You've read in "A brief history of royal baby names" about the 27 names in the British royal baby name book (since William the Conqueror in 1066). Now here's what they actually mean.

Germanic names

Wealth-Guard (Eadweard)
Edward is the only name of English kings that actually traces back to Old English: ead "wealth" and weard "guard." Old English is a Germanic language, and there are several other names that are also Germanic — but they were mostly brought in by the Norman conquerors. The last Wealth-Guard skipped out to marry an American.

Desire-Helmet (Wilhelm)
William the Conqueror, the Norman invader who brought over French but also a lot of Germanic, had a name made of wil "will, desire" and helm "helmet." Sounds like XXX virtual-reality headgear, doesn't it?

Home-Ruler (Haimric)
Henry is a name good enough for eight kings and the younger brother of Prince William. Haim is "home" and ric means "power" or "ruler" — it's related to rich and the German Reich.

Power-Hardy (Richard)
This is that ric again plus hard "hardy." Not to be confused with Power-Hungry, which the usual version of history would have us call Richard III.

Freeman (Ceorl)
This name, which we now render as Charles, is also related to modern English churl. It referred to a person who was not the property or servant of another. That used to set the bar higher than it does now… as long as we don't think about how much of each of us the banks own.

Also from Germanic
Among that names that kings have had but that weren't the name they reigned under, there were Adalberht (Noble-Bright), aka Albert; Fredric (Peace-Ruler), aka Frederick; Eornost (Seriousness), aka Ernest; and Hludwig (Fame-Warrior), aka Louis — yes, that's right, that classic French name is really just a French version of Ludwig.

Hebrew

Heel-Grabber (Yaakov)
James. Yup, James comes from the same Hebrew original as Jacob. The split likely came in late Latin; compare Italian, where the two are Giacomo and Giacobo (among other versions).

God-Is-Gracious (Yohanan)
John has been the name of only one king in England, and God wasn't really all that gracious to him, it seems. Maybe if his name hadn't changed so much from the original…

God-Is-My-Oath (Elisheba)
Elizabeth, the current queen, is named after a Biblical figure, as most English queens have been… with names altered by the tides of time.

Bitterness (Miryam)
In the Bible, Mary was Elizabeth's cousin; in England, she was her half-sister, and she made a lot of other people bitter — with religious persecutions that earned her the epithet "Bloody Mary." It's not entirely certain that the Hebrew source of her name means "bitterness," but that is the most common opinion.

He-Has-Favored-Me (Hanna)
Don't remember a Queen Hanna? How about Queen Anne? Yes, Anne, who was monarch from 1702 to 1714 (we're not talking about Anne Boleyn here, though she shares the name), is named after a Biblical character — who, like some other Biblical characters, is rendered into English differently in the New Testament than in the old. (Others include James and Mary, just mentioned, as well as Jesus, whose name was actually Yeshua, which in the Old Testament is usually rendered as Joshua.)

Also from Hebrew
Used as a name, but not reigned under: David, which was first the name of a king of Israel. What does it mean? We're not entirely sure, but it may have been "darling."

Greek

Farmer (Georgos)
The patron saint of England, along with six kings named after him, bore a Greek-derived name meaning "earth-worker" — which is to say "farmer." Not usually how one thinks of a king.

Horse-Lover (Philippos)
This Spanish king married Mary and so had joint title. Most Englishmen prefer to forget that. His name comes from Greek philein "love" and hippos "horse," and I'm sure he did.

Crown (Stephanos)
In the mid-1100s England's crown rested on a head named for it. Stephanos can also mean "garland."

Also from Greek
There are two middle names that English kings have had that are Greek: Warrior (or just Man — Andreas), aka Andrew; and Defender of Men (Alexandros), aka Alexander — and, for queens, Alexandra, and Alexandrina.

Latin

Conqueror (Victorius)
Victoria was the only monarch of England to reign under a Latin-derived name. It seems to have served her well.

Also from Latin
Magnificent (Augustus — used as is), Christian (Christianus in the original — the Christ part is from Greek christos, which means "anointed"), and Nobleman (Patricius, aka Patrick) are all middle names from Latin that kings of England used… although there are also some other theories about the origin of Patrick.

Welsh

The name Arthur comes from somewhere, and many people think it's Celtic, probably Welsh. The original would probably have been Artur. The meaning may have had something to do with bears. George VI and Princes Charles and William have had this as a middle name, but no one has reigned as Arthur. Oh, of course there was the King Arthur of the legendary round table. But when he was king — assuming he ever was — England wasn't England yet: the Anglo-Saxons hadn't come and taken over.

James Harbeck is a professional word taster and sentence sommelier (an editor trained in linguistics). He is the author of the blog Sesquiotica and the book Songs of Love and Grammar.

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