A brief history
of Richard



Richard is a widespread name. There are many Richards. And looking on the Internet, there are a number of Richard Murrays.


Right then. To begin our tale, we shall travel back in time to the Middle Ages (that's about 1000AD...). In those days, men had just one name such as Ashwin or Orme. Such names are around today, but as surnames.

The English language was quite different then. This is important in trying to trace a name back this far. We watch movies set in the Middle Ages where they all speak with a nice comprehendable British accent (or worse, an American one (like Kevin Costner in Prince of thieves!!!))).
Maybe it is hard to comprehend how shocking the change in the English language has been. Only a thousand years ago, it would have been spoken in a way that could be understood if you put your mind to it, but it was written in what looks for all the world like an uneasy melange of Latin and northern-German.
Here is the Lord's Prayer as it would have been written in 1000AD, what we'd consider to be Old English:

Faeder ure thu the eart on heofonum, si thin nama gehalgod. Tobecume thin rice. Gewurthe in willa on eothan swa swa on heofonum. Urne gedaeghwamlican hlaf syle us to daeg. And forgyf us ure glytas, swa swa we forgyfath urum gyltedum. And ne gelaed thu us on contnungen ac alys us of yfele. Sothlice.
All syllables are enunciated. "name" (which gives us 'name') is pronounced like nah-ma.


When the Normans conquered England in 1066, they brought their names with them. They also brought the Norman dialect of French with them. Now, obviously anybody wishing to 'fit in' in the mess of this would use the Norman names (William, Robert, and of course Richard) in preference to old English names. But not only did they bring their names, they also brought the custom of recycling names. For instance, in Old English, if the parents were called Ashwin and Edith, they might choose to call their son Ashwith.
The Normans, though, stuck with fairly consistent names, so there were a number of Richards, and a number of Walters. Names, instead of being combined from the parent's names, were passed through the family, or given in honour of somebody with that name.


About a hundred or so years later, the Church stepped in and shook things up again. For some time the Church had been trying to get people to use good solid Saints' names. Finally people began to do so in large numbers. This became the birth of what we refer to today as the "Christian name". Fortunately, many of the widespread names (such as William, Robert, and again Richard) were also the names of Saints so they could be used alongside the names that we can more readily associate with Biblical names (Solomon, Isaac, Adam, et cetera).
The one name practically never used by English-speakers was Jesus, which interestingly contrasts with French, where both sexes can have Mary in their name (as the virgin Mary is an important person in French religion, I suspect more so than Jesus himself) to form names such as Jean-Marie; and in Spain where the inclusion of Jesus or Marie is a fairly common occurance. It is usually a middle name rather than a first name. It also contrasts with the Moslem use of Mohammad, which is a very popular name in Islamic.
Incidentally, a version of Jesus has come in to more common use within the last forty years...Joshua. And the name of the believer is also used as a name... Christian.


By around 1400, the choice of names had settled to something that would continue for six hundred years. There were regional variations (for example, Martin was a name mostly given in Sussex), and the cycle of 'popular' names which came into fashion, and went out just as quickly, thus dating the person given that name. Richard was a very popular name in the fiftheenth century.

The fifteenth century was important also in the English language. Normandy was lost in 1200, and at that time English was reinstated as the exclusive language of the country (the rulers had been speaking French, following the Norman invasion). However a lot of French entered the English language, and it can still be found there today. You can probably think of half a dozen such phrases off of the top of your head (start with one I used earlier "malange", then we have "malady" (spelt -y, not -ie as in French). A lot of the pronounciation was altered, name's final syllable became silent, and so on. Additionally, the word order was aligned to that which we would recognise today "Our father that...", instead of the Old English "Father ours that...".
Here is the Lord's Prayer as it would have been written in 1400AD, what we'd consider to be Middle English:

Oure fadir that art in heuenes halowid be thi name, thi kyngdom come to, be thi wille don in erthe es in heuene, yeue to us this day oure bread ouir other substance, & foryeue to us our dettis, as we forgeuen to oure dettouris, & lede us not in to temptacion: but delyuer us from yuel, amen.
(if it helps, try pronouncing some 'y' as an 'ih' sound, and some 'u' as a 'vv' sound; thus 'delyuer' and 'yuel' become 'del-ih-vv-er' and 'ih-vv-el' respectively)


Now the obvious problem that we have is a whole bunch of people called Richard, or Robert, et cetera. How do you distinguish them?
Secondary names were given. At first, they were either nicknames or just a description of what the person did (Smith was the village blacksmith, Turner probably worked with wood...). In time, these secondary names were passed from one generation to the next, as a kind of hereditary name. These names did not change, except by marriage, so they were sort of 'super names'. And that would be correct. Surname was taken from the French Surnom, which is comprised of sur (-super; Latin) and nom (-name; French).

A lot of the lower classes took on the names of their masters; so Jones is likely to have been derived from John, Watkins from Walter...
Yet others are fairly obvious to see, Richardson - son of Richard. Others are more obscure. Higgins is also derived from Richard, though a name that has all but died out. If it is a clue, the name Dixon is also Richard-derived.


In fact, a reasonable list of surnames derived from my name is:

Richard... Dekin Dickason Dicken Digance
Diggles Dixon Hicken Hickling
Hicks Hichmott Hiscutt Hitchcock
Hitchens Hitchman Hudd Huddle
Hudson Richards Rick Rickett
Ritch Rix    

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Let's take, for example, Dicken. This can be Diggen(s), Dykens or Dykins, Dickins, Dickens, and lots of things with -son suffixed.


Of particular note, incidentally, is a good friend of mine - Glenn Richards. His name is an example of a first name converted to a surname and a surname converted to a first name.


Some people began to take the surname of those who were noteworthy or famous, and bestow these names to their children as first names. Examples of this are Clive, Leslie, Jefferson, Homer, and as I have already mentioned, Glenn.

Additionally, several names changed sex. In the United Kingdom, Robin is a boys name where it is a girls name in America. Tracy was originally a boys name, but now dates a girl as being born in the late sixties to mid seventies.


In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the English Catholic Church (thank Henry VIII for needing so many marriages and the odd divorce or two, he couldn't behead every Good Wyffe) led to the creation of the Church of England. This then led to the emergence of Protestant extremists known as Puritans. They were so busy in believing that little else really mattered, and if it did it was evil (watch "The Crucible" some time). They went all-out with their naming based upon the bible. Thankfully, many of the names (Deliverance, now the title of a rather amusing (and creepy) movie) died out. Others live on today, Faith, Felicity, Grace, Hope, Verity).

There was a brief spell of biblical names such as Habakkuk, but this didn't carry on for very long. It was a notably un-British name, not to mention a name likely to cause consternation for the ill-educated populace. So known and previously used names were chosen, names such as Adam and Sarah.

In our "brief history of the english language (never mind 'Richard')", we have reached a time known as Early Modern English, around 1600AD. This is the language of Shakespeare and should be familiar to anybody unfortunate enough to have had to read all of his works at school (but not as unfortunate as those poor souls inflicted the heresy of learning his works after they'd been translated into Contemporary English).
What we had was a great big vowel shift. Some examples, "like" (leek), "mouse" (mooce), and "geese" (gace).
The spelling didn't alter as much as the language, which is why we idiosyncrasities like the 'a' in cam and came being pronounced in two different ways ('ah' and 'ay').
Here is the Lord's Prayer as it would have been written in 1600AD, what we'd consider to be Early Modern English:

Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever, amen.
If it looks familiar in spelling and syntax, I should point out that the King James bible was written around these times.

If you think I'm a 'philistine' because of my dislike of the good Bard; I simply feel that a guy who writes a death scene over that many lines is a bit of a ponce...

Oh, I am slain!
If thou be merciful, lay me with Juliet.
In faith, I will. Yada, yada, yada, yada.
Here's to my love!
<glug-glug> Oh true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.
...mere moments later...
...and there I am. Where is my Romeo?
...Go, get thee hence, for I will not away.
Blah, blah, blah. Whinge, whinge, whinge.
Thy lips are warm.
Yea, noise? Then I'll be brief. Oh happy dagger!
This is thy sheath.
there rust, and let me die.
At least Baz Luhrmann made it watchable... :-)


The time when most of the surnames-to-first names and the abandoning of tight regional names was around the middle of the seventeenth century. Thus a name such as Felicity was taken to be another name you could choose, rather than marking you as a Puritan. An awful lot of other stuff happened at this time, the time of The Restoration, which caused some people to flee to the New world. I won't go into detail, but will suggest next time you watch Witness, take note of the names of the Amish. A lot of Old Testament names went with those who left for the New World; and explains things such as Noah Webster and, of course, Abraham Lincoln.


In the eigtheenth century, 'pet' forms of names came into use. A Richard could be a Dick (and some were, a lame pun demonstrating why this form is rarely used nowadays), a Ricky, a Richie, or my own preferred version, Rick).
Into the century, these pet forms began to take on the job of being names in their own right. Is Geri Halliwell a Geri, or was she born a Geraldine?


From this time, and until the '20s, people were addressed by their surnames. Two famous examples were Holmes and Watson, both surnames, and both as the people were called. This was the way it was. The lower classes referred to each other by first names, but anybody worthy of note was known by surname and reffered to others likewise.
At boarding school (1985-1990), most of the teachers called by formally Mr. Murray. On my first day I had the cheek to correct a teacher who referred to me as such because I had never been in an environment where people did so. The teacher was nonplussed, and I don't think he ever referred to me as anything else - even when I returned for a brief visit one Autumn day in 1999. Most of the boys called me Murray. I was only known as Richard to my very best friends, and one or two 'trendy' teachers who tried to be on first-name-terms, and not wear grey suits...

For a long time, to use a first name was not seen as intimacy or friendship, but rather as a form of condescension. Labourers and low-order workers would be Tom or 'arry. Servants were called by their first name, but not necessarily their own. If a name was seen as too superior for the person, it would replaced by something seen as being more suitable. You wouldn't have a servant girl called Camilla.
People who were middle-class but recognised as being so by being called Mr. or Mrs and their surname, both of which were an honour. The rigid class system had begun to break down in the '30s, and it is not only more acceptable to be known by a first name, it is sometimes even more acceptable to be known by a pet name. When I introduce myself, I formally state my name as Richard Murray, but if a person (say, at work) asks me my name, I say I am Rick. It is more laid back, it is informal, it projects the kind of image that I am looking for. If I ever attain a PhD, I might announce myself as Dr. Dick if I thought the person might make the association with the bloke on "Cybill", or otherwise I'd probably call myself Rick. The Dr. Murray title is unlikely to get much further than my CV, and various official things such as my chequebook.

In a sense, I am following the cause and effect cycle of why society has changed. I reject people who are notary simply for being born. Thus, for Sir prefixes, I would pick people such as Bob Geldoff or Richard Branson (note, neither are seen to use fanciful names in informal situations) rather than pretty much every hereditary Lord in the country. That is also why I have a slightly hardened soft spot for Bill Gates (formally: William Gates, the third) aside from what I think of his company. Sure, their business practice leaves a lot to be desired, but his is a self-made fortune rather than an inheritance or cashing in on a title (ie, a lot of the royal family). There is the connection that those people actually went out and DID something. I don't agree with all of it, like the ridiculous payments for football 'personalities' which has succeeded in stripping the last remnants of respectability from the game. People play for money now, not for sport. But I digress, this argument can go on forever...

What is worthy of note, however, is that the role of surnames as a sole identifier is a passing phase. Shakespeare wrote of Romeo and Juliet. They were known as such, rather than Miss Capulet and Mr. Montague. The whole façade was a result of the artificial mannerisms perfected to excess in Victorian times.


A name that is a little different has something over the others. Either a false title (how many Earls and Dukes do you see on US television? Take an obvious example, "The Dukes of Hazzard". None of them were officially titled. It is a self-given, or parent-given title. just as Prince Naseem is very unlikely to be royalty.
Milder forms of this are in letter names, such as Harry S Truman where the middle name was exactly that, 's'. Additionally, unusual names (Charisma Carpenter), or unusual spellings (Alyson Hannigan, rather than Alison...).


A male name is often converted to a female name, whether it is something fairly obvious such as Cecilia (from Cecil).
Richard, correctly, only forms two feminine names - Ricarda and Richenda. It is, these days, fairly widely thought that names like Ricky and Rikki came from Richard, and it is obvious to see why. Unfortunately, Eric is responsible for them. At best, we can say it is a shared name. I'm sure a person wishing to name their daughter after a Richard would rather use Rikki than Ricarda (which, to me, sounds sorta Spanish).


Now we are in the twenty first century, I guess I should show you the Lord's Prayer as it is written in Contemporary English. I had not seen this version before, I would guess it is a bit of an Americanism (everywhere I was taught in England, the 1600AD version was used). So, here it is...

Our Father, who is in heaven, may your name be kept holy. May your kingdom come into being. May your will be followed on earth, just as it is in heaven. Give us this day our food for the day. And forgive us our offences, just as we forgive those who have offended us. And do not bring us to the test. But free us from evil. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours forever. Amen.
To me, the Contemporary English version seems fundamentally broken. I can't quite put my finger on it, except to say that there is sort of pattern, a cadence almost, to the speaking of the Early Middle English version, which I just can't get to fit this newer one.


I will wrap up with a brief record of how well Richard did as a name up until when I was born. For what it is worth, I wasn't named Richard because it was a popular name. I was named after my uncle.


Popularity of Richard 1900-1975
Year USA UK Canada
1900 Joint 28th   23rd
-  no  -
1925 6th 42nd
- data -
1950 8th Joint 20th   8th
1975   Joint 25th 6th Joint 48th


Days associated with Saints called Richard:


I wish to respectfully mention that the information on the speech patterns was learned from Steven Pinker's book "The Language Instinct". Additionally, the examples of the Lord's Prayer were copied from page 248 (except the Early Modern English, I got from a religious text with pretty much the same text except words like 'who art' instead of 'which are').
The book (ISBN 0-14-017529-6, £8.99) is an astonishingly informative look at language. It is hard to explain without you having read the book; it isn't what I expected when exbarking on my little read about 'language'. It gets a bit heavy in the middle with loads of examples of N VP and the like (which my attention span demanded I skip over). Even if you do skip the explanations and justifications for the reasoning, you will learn a lot about language from this book.

I'm afraid I cannot be so precise as to the meaning of "Richard". This was cobbled together with a whole bunch of sources, a few books on the origin of names, a book on the meaning of babies names, a calendar (for the saint's days!), the Internet, and a dusty old history book so I didn't write something stupid like the Norman Invasion in 1666 (that was more a Rodent Invasion; though some might ask where the difference lay!).

Return to Rick's World index

Copyright © 2001 Richard Murray