©1997 by Heather Rose Jones. All rights reserved.
Last updated 7 March 1997
There are a set of names that have in common being spelled with the letters "M*R*G*N" and origin in some fashion in a Celtic language. Many people mistakenly assume that these names are all related to each other, or that they can be considered interchangeable. This essay will examine the various different origins, uses, and cultural affiliations involved, as well as their historical, literary, and modern uses.
upper case = accented syllable
vowels have "continental" values -- a colon marks a long vowel
kh = hard ch, as in Scottish "loch" or German "ach"
gh = the voiced version of the preceding -- "gh" is to "kh" as "g" is to "k"
y = as in "young" not as in "by"
In the event that you don't want to read this entire article, here is a summary of the information on names in this article.
"Celtic" is the name of a group of languages, originally spoken over much of western Europe, but surviving in the Middle Ages primarily around the British Isles. Although these languages evolved from a common source (called "Common Celtic"), by the time we have records of them, they had split into a number of distinct languages. So it is not useful to speak of a "Celtic name"; any particular name will be an Irish name or a Welsh name or the like.
The earliest written records we have of Celtic languages are of Gaulish and a few other continental languages from the first century or so BCE. While Gaulish itself did not survive into the Middle Ages, it is similar enough to the ancestors of languages that did to give us useful information. The surviving Celtic languages belong to two distinct groups: the Goidelic, or "Q- Celtic" languages, including Irish and Scottish Gaelic; and the Brythonic, or "P-Celtic" languages, including Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. This article concerns itself primarily with Irish and Welsh, with occasional references to Gaulish.
These languages changed greatly over the period we will be considering, and it is convenient to identify some general periods in this change. 500-1000 CE corresponds roughly to the "Old Irish" and "Old Welsh" periods; 1000-1400 CE corresponds roughly to the "Medieval" period of the langauges; and after 1400 can be considered the "Early Modern" period. (The periods are defined differently for different languaes, so this is a compromise.)
Another important point to remember is that pronunciation and spelling are complex topics. In the medieval period, there was a constant tension between the desire to spell words phonetically, "as they sound", and the tendency of spelling to be conservative, to continue spelling words and names the same way even as pronunciation was changing. Each language tended to evolve its own system for representing sounds in writing. Thus, people who spoke different languages, when hearing a name, might write it in very different ways; or if they both saw a written name, they might interpret the letters as very different sounds. This is particularly important to keep in mind in the discussion on Morgain below.
It is convenient to get this name out of the way first. It is a name appearing in Irish legend which is entirely unrelated to the other names discussed here and for which there is no evidence of ordinary use prior to 1600, and probably prior to modern times.
Morrígan or Morrígu is the Old Irish name of an ancient Irish war-goddess. The first part is cognate with the Old English maere, a word which has survived into Modern English as part of "nightmare." The second part, rígan, is Old Irish for "queen." Attempts have been made to connect Morrigan to Morgan, but there does not seem to be any sound basis for this. The word is sometimes used as a generic term for a group of three war goddesses, along with Macha and Bodb. [DIL]
This name is the crux of much confusion, and it will surpise many people to learn that the common given name Morgan is entirely unrelated to the Arthurian Morgain.
The Welsh given name Morgan derives from a hypothetical Common Celtic *Moricantos, with the first element probably meaning "sea" but the second element uncertain. It appears in Old Welsh as Morcant (pronounced "mo:r-GANT"), in Early Medieval Welsh as Morgant (pronounced "MO:R-gan" -- the "t" is most likely silent by this time), and in later Medieval Welsh as Morgan, the same form it has in Modern Welsh. [Bartrum, Bromwich]
In pre-modern records, the name Morgan is always masculine. It had a modest popularity in medieval Wales, neither one of the favorite names nor particularly rare. In the 20th century, the name is commonly used in the USA by women as well as men. I don't know whether this is also true in Britain. Modern Welsh name books still consider the name exclusively masculine. [Gruffudd]
At various times, the origin and meaning of the name has been popularly misinterpreted. During the Puritan period it was misunderstood as meaning "sea-born" (the same meaning as Morien below) and it was used to translate the name Pelagius in the Book of Common Prayer. [Withycombe] In the 16th century there are examples of the name as a surname being spelled Morgaine or Morgayne [Morgan & Morgan] in English contexts, which may be due to a confusion with the literary name Morgain (q.v.).
This name was in ordinary use prior to 1600, but only as a man's name.
This name appears in Old Irish as Muirgen, in Medieval Irish as Muirgein, in Early Modern Irish as Muirghein, and after the 20th century spelling reform it becomes Muirín. [OC&M, DIL]
In medieval records, it appears in ordinary use as the name of both men and women. (There is also at least one semi-legendary literary figure that bears the name.) [OC&M]
The Common Celtic name from which it derives is most likely *Morigenos (which would have been the masculine form), which means "sea-born." The elements Mori- and -genos can be found in Gaulish names, although the compound itself does not appear in surviving inscriptions.
This name was in ordinary use prior to 1600 by both men and women.
Although Welsh and Irish are different languages, they come from a common root. Many Irish words have counterparts in Welsh which derived from the same origin. Words which are related in this way are called "cognates," and comparisons of cognates can provide evidence for the original word. As it turns out, the Old Irish name Muirgen has a cognate in Old Welsh: Morgen.
Morgen appears in Old Welsh as a man's name and was pronounced along the lines of "mo:r-GHEN" and evolves into Medieval (and Modern) Welsh Morien, pronounced "MO:R-yen". [Llan Dav, Bartrum] There is some important timing to keep track of here: although Morgen and Morgan appear very much alike, they are different names taken from different periods. When Morgen was being used, the second appeared as Morcant, and when Morgan was being used, the other appeared as Morien. The two are not interchangeable.
This name was in ordinary use prior to 1600 as a man's name.
Now we come to the Great Confusion. Geoffrey of Monmouth was a historical writer in the 12th century. He took a number of traditional historical tales and "dressed them up" for new audiences. One of the things he did was to provide names for a large number of characters that apparently had been left unnamed in previous versions of the stories. Without going into the details, we can determine that Geoffrey took these names from a variety of sources. Sometimes he used names that were being used in Britain at that time. Other times, he borrowed names from written sources that had once been used, but which he didn't recognize. And there are a number of clear examples where he mangled those names, either through ignorance or indifference to their original form and meaning. A characteristic case is that of the name Guendoleu, a man's name from early Welsh poetry. Geoffrey not only misread it as Guendolen but used it for a female character. [Hutson]
Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the first stories that describe the Arthurian character we now call "Morgen le Fay", who first appears in his "Vita Merlini" ("The Life of Merlin,") written in the 12th century. Geoffrey calls the character Morgen, and identifies her as the chief of nine sisters who preside over the "isle of apples", i.e., Avalon. [Bromwich] Although it is possible to see a motivation for using this name in the "sea/Mor" connection, there is no reason to assume -- based on many of his other choices -- that he had any particular motivation at all. And while it is possible to extrapolate from the fact that the Irish cognate Muirgen was used for both men and women, and hypothesize that the Welsh Morgen may also have been in ordinary use for both men and women, we have no direct evidence of this. Given the example of Guendoleu/Guendolen we have no reason to believe that such a consideration would have been important to Geoffrey.
It is almost certain that Geoffrey knew the name Morgen from written sources rather than from hearing it used. At his time, the pronunciation would have been "MO:R-yen" and based on other examples in his work, the names he was likely to have heard spoken are rendered more phonetically, rather than retaining the conservative Old Welsh spellings. (A typical example of this is the name of a local saint, which Geoffrey renders phonetically as Duvianus, but which would have been Dubianus in the written sources he was using. [Hutson])
Geoffrey's work became the source for virtually all following Arthurian material, so the names he used -- for whatever reason - - were widely perpetuated.
When Geoffrey's stories and the names within them made their way to France, any possible connection with the original Welsh pronunciation was lost entirely. The French saw the name Morgen and guessed that it would be best represented by Morgain (pronounced "mo:r-ge:n"). This became the standard French spelling of the characters name. [Bromwich] Later, the form Morgaine evolved by analogy with other French women's names ending in -e.
There appears to be no evidence that the literary name Morgain was used by actual people before 1600.
This name has several possible origins, or understandings of its origin. The literary character "Morgain la Fee" appears in Italian versions of the Arthurian tales as "Fata Morgana". [De Felice] Morgana may also be understood as a modern "feminization" of the masculine given name Morgan (q.v.).
There appears to be no evidence that Morgana was used as a name by real people before 1600.
I have tried, as much as possible, to state negative evidence as "no evidence has been found for X" rather than as "X was absolutely not done". If anyone can find clear, conclusive evidence that contradicts any of these points (and hard citations, not just "I read in a book somewhere"), I would be very interested in receving it so that I can incorporate it into my understanding of this name-complex. In particular, I would not be shocked to discover French or Italian examples of the literary names Morgain/Morgana being taken into ordinary usage -- but to date, no such examples have come to my notice.
Bartrum, P. C. Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1966.
Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978.
De Felice, Emidio. Dizionario dei Nomi Italiani. Milano: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.p.A., 1986.
Dictionary of the Irish Language (Based Mainly on Old and Middle Irish Materials) - Compact Edition. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1990. "DIL"
Evans, J. Gwenogvryn. The Text of the Book of Llan Dav. Aberystwyth: The National Library of Wales, 1979. (Facsimile version of the 1893 Oxford University Press edition) "Llan Dav"
Gruffudd, Heini. Enwau i'r Cymry/Welsh Personal Names. Talybont: Y Lolfa, 1984.
Hutson, Arthur. British Personal Names in the Historia Regum Britanniae. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1940.
MacLennan, Malcolm. Gaelic Dictionary G-E E-G. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1988.
Morgan, T. J., & Morgan, Prys. Welsh Surnames. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1985.
Ó Corráin, Donnchadh & Maguire, Fidelma. Irish Names. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1990. "OC&M"
Ó Dónaill, Niall. Focloir Gaeilge-Bearla. Baile tha Cliath (Dublin): Richview Browne & Nolan Ltd., 1977.
Thurneysen, Rudolf. A Grammar of Old Irish. Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1980.
Watkins, Calvert. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo- European Roots. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.
Withycombe, E. G. The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names (3rd Ed.). Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1977.
Problem Names Project articles are published by Sharon L. Krossa (contact), with the assistance of The Academy of Saint Gabriel.
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