Concerning the Name

by Josh Mittleman
known in the SCA as Arval Benicoeur

©1999 by Josh Mittleman. All rights reserved.

Last updated 2 May 1999

Amber is a popular feminine name in modern English and quite a few authors have used it for their characters, some in medieval settings. However, with only a couple possible exceptions, it has not been found used as a name in pre-1600 languages.

The general practice of naming girls after gemstones is modern. There are a few medieval exceptions, but most of the gemstone names used in modern English are innovations of the 19th or 20th centuries. Amber came into use in English in the 19th century when such names became fashionable. Its 20th century popularity derives from the novel Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor, later made into a film [1].

The most interesting possible exception is a woman named Ambra who appears in a 15th century census of Florence, Italy [2]. The Italian word for "amber" is identical, ambra, so this may be a rare early example of a gemstone name. On the other hand, the resemblance could be coincidental: We also found Ambra as a Norwegian name, a feminine form of Ambros that dropped out of use before 1900. The masculine form was in use around 1600, so it is possible that Ambra was used in late 16th century Norway, too [3]. However, it was not related to the gemstone in any way.

The widespread belief among medieval re-enactors that Amber was used in medieval English and French may derive in part from a confusing, evolving policy on the part of the SCA College of Arms [*]. However, we have found no evidence to support this belief.


[*] The SCA College of Arms has reversed its policy on whether or not to register Amber at least three times. It was registered up to 1980. At that point, the College first adopted rules requiring documentation for names and Wilhelm von Schlüssel ruled that Amber was undocumented. In April 1984, Baldwin of Erebor decided to register it on the basis of an example of Amberson as an English surname, and in February 1985 he extended that ruling to allow the French Ambre and Italian Ambra. (The 15th century Italian example of Ambra had not yet been discovered by the College.) Da'ud ibn Auda reversed that policy in his March 1994 letter, observing that the original evidence was faulty: Amberson actually derives from a surname that meant son of Amery, not son of Amber [4].


[1] Dunkling, Leslie and William Gosling, The New American Dictionary of First Names (New York: Signet Books, 1983), s.n. Amber.

[2] Arval Benicoeur, Feminine Given Names from the Online Catasto of Florence of 1427 (WWW: J. Mittleman, 1998).

[3] Kruken, Kristoffer, ed. Norsk personnamnleksikon, 2nd ed. (Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget, 1995).

[4] Bardsley, Charles, A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1980), s.n. Ambrey.