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I was once told that "Susan" was an ancient example of a name switching genders: Originally, it was "Susan" vs. "Susanna", and when the name passed from Latin to its descendants, the distinction between them eroded, and people eventually stopped naming their boys "Sue". Some cursory examination, however, has revealed that this isn't the case: It was always feminine, ultimately deriving from "Shoshannah", the Hebrew for "Lily", and "Susan" is just "Susanne" from the French.

However, I had already named a (female) character "Susan", intending her to be one of those "I really wanted a boy, so have a boy's name" kind of things, but in a setting where modern examples like "Sidney" or "Lindsey" or even "Kimberly" would be jarring. She is now "Agrippa", as that is a first declension masculine, but I'd really like a name that actually has the spurious etymology I thought "Susan" did.

The piece is a feudal drama, so older names are better, and the region she comes from prefers Latinate names. It is not, however, a historical drama, so 'feel' is better than 'fact' and any name that started its life as a masculine name (optionally with a feminine form) in Latin or Greek, but is now unequivocally feminine with no masculine counterpart will do. It's a story thing: Her father actually named her "Susanna" (now "Agrippina") but she herself preferred "Susan" (now "Agrippa"), with the implication that she is the reason the name belongs to girls now.

Does such a name exist? I'll take any of praenomina, nomina or cognomina, or their Greek equivalents, so long as they are now a given name that is given exclusively to girls.


I have accepted jcaron's suggestion of "Vivian". I am aware that the name is still masculine in some parts, but I've never met one and, well, 'feel' is better than 'fact'. Also, the name means something now. Did I mention that her father tried thirty-four times for an heir and she's the only one who survived birth?

Do not let this discourage future answers, though. I'm genuinely interested in if a name like spurious Susan actually exists.

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  • Does it need to specifically be the Latin form of the name, or would a Romance form work?
    – Draconis
    Commented Jun 23 at 19:30
  • @Draconis It doesn't have to be Latin per se, no, merely derived from Latin. It can be French or Spanish or even Romanian, so long as it is recognizable as a name in English (even if a bit old fashioned)
    – No Name
    Commented Jun 23 at 19:40
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    @Draconis And before you ask, no "Andrea" is not something I am considering, partly because it's still masculine in Italian, and partly because "Andrew" exists
    – No Name
    Commented Jun 23 at 19:41
  • So what exactly are you looking for? There are thousands of male names out there. If you want her to be a girl with a boy's name, you can call her John or Robert or Henry. Are you looking for a name that used to be feminine but is now masculine? A name that could be said to sort of kind of sound feminine but is normally given to boys? Or ... what?
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 24 at 13:35
  • 2
    @Jay They’re looking specifically for a name that originally had both masculine and feminine variants, but where the two eventually merged, and its use as a male name ceased. An example that almost works would be Pierre: in Latin (and Greek), there’s a masculine form Petrus and a feminine Petra. Those two both regularly yield Pierre in French, but this is only used as a male name – for the female, the Latin form Petra has been re-borrowed (in English, of course, the masculine Petrus has yielded Peter). If Pierre had ever been used as a feminine name, that would have worked. Commented Jun 24 at 13:49

3 Answers 3

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(I'm afraid we're probably quite off-topic here)

Nicola maybe?

Wikipedia says:

Nicola or Nichola is a Latinised version of the Greek personal name Nikolaos (Νικόλαος) (...) Nicola is both a male and female name, depending on cultural norms.

Nicola was a frequently given male personal name among the traditional Italian nobility, and was used often in the Middle Ages.

(...)

Nicola has been used as a female name since at least 1150 (the birth date of Lady Nicola de la Haie) and continues as a contemporary female name in Germany, the British Isles and Scandinavia".

It is not "unequivocally feminine" though, but this may vary depending on locale (in space and in time).

Jean

Jean is masculine in French (remember English courts used French in the XIth-XIVth centuries), but quite definitely feminine in English nowadays (quite a different pronunciation though, and while coming from the same origin (Latin Johannes), took a little bit of different path to get to the same spelling).

Vivian

Wikipedia tells us:

Vivian (...) is (...) derived from a Latin name of the Roman Empire period, masculine Vivianus and feminine Viviana

(...)

The name was brought to England with the Norman invasion, and is occasionally recorded in England in the 12th and 13th centuries. The masculine given name appears with greater frequency in the early modern period. The spelling Vivian was historically used only as a masculine name, and is still used as such in the UK with this spelling, but in the 19th century was also given to girls and was a unisex name until the early part of the 20th century; since the mid 20th century, it has been almost exclusively given as a feminine name in the United States.

A few more

Other names you could look into (but while it's easy to find stats over the last century or so, data a few centuries ago will require a bit more work, and many may not be very "latin" or relevant for a medieval setting, but you never know:

  • Robin (originally masculine, now unisex, though it depends on where and when -- definitely not Latin, but definitely suitable for a medieval context!)
  • Angel
  • Marian (the male/female split is probably more geographic than time-based)
  • Carol (ditto)
  • Lois (another example of masculine in French and feminine in English -- via two completely different etymologies, Latin for the female one, Germanic for the masculine one)
  • Alexis (Greek rather than Latin), traditionally male, now mostly female, but not "unequivocally".
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    Vivian has exactly the vibe I'm looking for! I'll give it a few more hours, but I think this is the one
    – No Name
    Commented Jun 24 at 16:59
  • @NoName There's the issue of the Lady of the Lake (in Arthurian legend), who is known by many names/variations, including Vivian, but I have a hard time finding out if Vivian was used in English or only in the French versions.
    – jcaron
    Commented Jun 24 at 17:18
  • +1 for Vivian. "Jean: quite definitely feminine in English nowadays": I wouldn't say that because I had a teacher as well as a classmate being males and named Jean, but perhaps it was Canadian French's influence on Ontario
    – Daniel T
    Commented Jun 24 at 17:19
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    Vivian is a male name in Britain. (Vivianne is female.) See e.g. Vivian Stanstall. Commented Jun 25 at 12:16
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    How about Hilary? That can be both and it is Latin. NB: Vivian was a male name in the UK but it took a knock when Vivian Leigh played Scarlett O'Hara. Commented Jun 25 at 16:12
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Yes, a man named Susannus existed in Medieval Latin. Generally you can just replace the feminine ending with the masculine ending.


EDIT: @Janus Bahs Jacquet commented you're "looking specifically for a name that originally had both masculine and feminine variants, but where the two eventually merged, and its use as a male name ceased"

Let's align the M and F names on the Praenomen page:

M F
Agrippa (Agr.) (Agrippus)
Appius (Ap.) Appia (Ap.)
Aulus (A.) Aula (A.)
Caeso (K.) Caesula
Decimus (D.) Decima (D.)
Faustus (F.) Fausta (F.)
Gaius (C.) Gaia (C.)
Gnaeus (Cn.) Gnaea (Cn.)
Hostus Hosta (H.)
Lucius (L.) Lucia (L.)
(Magnus/Maius) Maio (Mai.)
Mamercus (Mam.) Mamerca (Mam.)
Manius (ꟿ. or M'.) Mania (M'.)
Marcus (M.) Marcia (M.)
(Maximus) Maxima
Mettius Mettia
(Minus) Mino (Min.)
Nonus Nona
Numerius (N.) Numeria (N.)
Octavius (Oct.) Octavia (Oct.)
Opiter (Opet.) ?
Paullus Paulla
Postumus (Post.) Postuma (Post.)
(Primus) Prima
Proculus (Pro.) Procula (Pro.)
Publius (P.) Publia (P.)
(Quartus) Quarta
Quintus (Q.) Quinta (Q.)
(Secundus) Secunda (Seq.)
Septimus Septima
Sertor (Sert.) (*Sertora/?Serta)
Servius (Ser.) Servia (Ser.)
Sextus (Sex.) Sexta (Sex.)
Spurius (S.) Spuria (Sp.)
Statius (St.) Statia (St.)
(Tertius) Tertia
Tiberius (Ti.) Tiberia (Ti.)
Titus (T.) Titia (T.)
Tullus Tulla
Vibius (V.) Vibia (V.)
Volesus (Vol.) Volusa (Vol.)
Vopiscus (Vop.) Vopisca (Vop.)

(Some) exist rarely. *One is unattested. Others overlap with an existing word. ?Only some can't be inflected for gender.

In general, Latin and Romance languages don't have "boy" or "girl" proper nouns like English, but something more like nouned adjectives, which inflect for gender. The 1st and 2nd declension is morphologically marked for gender so it can't switch. The ending lets you do whatever you want like Carl: Carlos / Carla. You're writing a story, so you could just try removing the Latin -us/-a ending if you need an androgynous name. Susan still sounds feminine because it still has an "a" ending sound.

It is more probably to find a "name switching genders" in the 3rd declension where gender is unmarked. The table has Maio and Mino. They have suffix -o. It was probably a clipping of suffix -or, or else it would have to be a clipping of "-io" or the Paleo-Balkan feminine suffix. Although we had Cato maior, it is more commonly for women like Gratia minor, Gratia maior, Octavia minor, and Octavia maior. This would exemplify how for the most part, "people eventually stopped naming their boys ['Maior']."


To go further we can leave Latin as you said "It doesn't have to be Latin per se." There is an amazing answer by @iacobo on Linguistics.SE:

In many Romance languages the female name Maria (or some variant thereof) has historically been used in male names, either standalone or as part of a compound name, though this practice has generally declined with time

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  • Huh, interesting. And it's in French, which explains why I didn't find it. But are there any other boys named Sue?
    – No Name
    Commented Jun 24 at 1:10
  • Googling "Susannus" with quotes returned 2 more men, but they were as late as the 19th century
    – Daniel T
    Commented Jun 24 at 8:45
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    "has generally declined with time" <— this is a great pun, even if unintentional
    – yshavit
    Commented Jun 25 at 15:19
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"Leslie" is a name that was originally both, but is now overwhelmingly female.

Different sources disagree on whether it's originally a Scottish surname (which would probably lean male) or based on an old English word for "joy," which might go either way.

It also had a huge surge in popularity in the US halfway through last century for both genders, after which it settled down to being a female name. That matches what you asked for, but may be later than you want.

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    Do note that the name has to be derived from Latin for it to count (and for it to be on-topic as well).
    – cmw
    Commented Jun 24 at 18:56
  • @cmw or Greek, and "feel is better than fact." You're right that asker clearly preferred Latin, but it did not appear to be a hard requirement.
    – fectin
    Commented Jun 24 at 19:51
  • (Ancient) Greek is certainly on topic here, so that would be fine, but if it weren't for the connection to Latin or Greek, the question would probably be closed for being off-topic and sent to maybe the English site.
    – cmw
    Commented Jun 24 at 20:01
  • One way this answer could be on-topic is en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Leslie#French . But it's folk etymology
    – Daniel T
    Commented Jun 25 at 4:27

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