With a modern spelling, he became one of the most popular names for American boys born in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. But in his original form, he was once equally trendy – back in the Middle Ages.
Thanks to Katharine for suggesting our Name of the Day: <strong>Geoffrey</strong>.
In recent years, the best known Geoffreys are probably the Toys’R’Us spokesgiraffe and Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush of <em>Pirates of the Caribbean</em> fame. (He plays Captain Barbossa, the bad guy.) Change the spelling to Jeffrey, however, and we can all list a few – from 1953 to 1979, he was a Top 25 pick for boys born in the US. Today he stands at #109.
He’s derived from Germanic elements, though which elements are debated. Most agree that the second syllable comes from <em>frid</em> – peace. But that first bit leads to a wide range of attributed meanings: peaceful place, peace of the world, peaceful traveler, pledge of peace and, most commonly, peace of God – though that last one is more closely linked to Godfrey. Chances are he’s a mash-up of several names, like Gaufrid and Gisfrid, whispered from German to French to English.
The Counts of Anjou were among the first famous Geoffreys – five of them bore the name between the 900s and 1100s. Geoffrey V married Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England, and their son went on to inherit the English throne as Henry II.
In the same era, the given name Geoffrey caught fire in England. In addition to aristocrats, we find two notable literary bearers:
<li>Geoffrey of Monmouth, the 12th century writer of tales of British history and especially stories of King Arthur;</li>
<li>The 14th century courtier and poet Geoffrey Chaucer, best known for penning <em>The Canterbury Tales</em>. </li>
You can find alternate spellings, including Jeffrey, as far back as the 11th century, but Geoffrey was dominant through the Middle Ages.
The name faded in popularity, only to be rediscovered in the 20th century. In the US, this time the preference was clearly for that once-rare version beginning with J. He’s utterly eclipsed the G spelling. While Jeffrey has remained in steady use, Geoffrey left the US Top 1000 after 2005.
And we suspect that this is the problem. While Geoffrey is distinguished and historic, Jeffrey feels tired. It’s tempting to dust off the medieval spelling and make him new again – but most parents seeking an underused gem want something that <em>sounds</em> distinctive. After all, we all know that spelling your daughter’s name Maddisyn doesn’t really make for an unusual moniker.
While Jeff is a friendly everyman kind of name – our generation’s Bob – that upbeat, ordinary vibe probably argues against a revival of Geoffrey, at least in the US.
Unless, of course, you go a few steps farther and adopt a pronunciation closer to the French. We know one 30-something Geoffrey who goes by Jof. Or, if you happen to be living outside the US, where Jeff was never a smash hit, then this is an appealing candidate for revival. Use it and make us Americans jealous!