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I'm one of those nerds who loves reference books of all kinds, and the Oxford Dictionary of First Names is no exception. I purchased it with the eye towards getting ideas for ethnic names in storywriting. But then I kept perusing it just for fun.
This is the OXFORD dictionary, so the main dictionary is for English names, or rather, names used in countries where English is the main language. But that doesn't stop it from having tons of names I've never heard of. How about Abishag (Biblical derivation) or Dreda (a shortened form of Etheldreda, no wonder I've never heard of it).
But it also has appendices for specific ethnic/language/country names, which I'll list later.
I just ordered this book, and it's the 2006 2nd edition. [Added later: There is a newer edition available now.]
The book starts with two Introductions, one from the 1st edition, and a new one for the 2nd. I found these very interesting, with information on how first names have been created over the centuries.
The scholarship behind the names looks complete. There are times where it simply states, "derivation uncertain". For older names, especially, that's all they can do. Not all names "mean" something, but the Oxford Dictionary tells you as much as it can about when the name first appeared and where it is or may be derived. If you are looking for a more "fun" book of names, a "what shall I name my baby" type book, you may be disappointed with this. This is prepared more like a dictionary, a reference book.
To give you an idea of how it's put together, I'll take a common English name, "Henry" in the main dictionary, shown as a male name: "A perennially popular given name, of Continental Germanic origin, from haim 'home' + ric 'power, ruler'. It was an Old French name, adopted by the Normans and introduced by them to Britain. It has been borne by eight kings of England. Not until the 17th century did the form Henry (as opposed to Harry) become the standard vernacular form, mainly under the influence of the Latin form Henricus and French Henri."
The kings are mentioned because, as is noted in an introduction, use of a name greatly increased after a royal used it.
Next, the pet forms (affectionate nicknames) of Henry are listed: Hal, Hank, Harry. (If you look up "Harry" in the main dicitonary, it simply states "short form of Henry".)
After the pet forms, the cognates are listed. These are the variations of the name in different languages. For Henry, the first listed is "Irish: Anrai, Einri". Then there's the cognates for Scottish, Gaelic, German, Dutch, Scandinavian, French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, Polish, Czech, Slovenian, Finnish, Hungarian and Lithuanian. Whew!
Following the main dictionary, are 13 appendices of ethnic/country names. So if we go to the Appendix for Irish names, you will find entries for Anrai and Einri with the description, "Irish eqivilent of Henry. See main dictionary". In this way, names are cross-referenced. Really first rate.
Here's a list of the 13 appendices of ethnic/country names: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Indian (country of), Irish, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Scandinavian, Scottish, Spanish, Welsh.
Appendix 14 is a list of unisex names.
Appendices 15 - 20 are lists of the most popular names for the given year of 2003 or 2004 for specific countries: England & Wales, Scotland, Republic of Ireland, United States, Australia, New Zealand. These lists came from official government agencies, which are indicated.
Appendices 21 and 22 give a little more detail encompassing several years, for England & Wales and the United States. For example, in 1954, the most popular American male name, according to the Dept of Social Security, was Robert. Robert wasn't even in the top 10 in 2003.
I find this book fun to page through - always something interesting!