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Ethel (also æthel) is an Old English word meaning "noble". It is frequently attested as the first element in Anglo-Saxon names, both masculine and feminine, e.g. Æthelhard, Æthelred, Æthelwulf; Æthelburg, Æthelflæd, Æthelthryth (Audrey). It corresponds to the Adel- and Edel- in continental names, such as Adolph (Æthelwulf), Adalbert (Albert), Adelheid (Adelaide), Edeltraut and Edelgard. There would be some reason to believe that the word is actually taken from "aedilis" or "Aedile", the Latin name of a Roman official, whose function was that of a magistrate and superintendent of public property. It was common that in smaller towns in the Roman era that the only public official was the aedile. Importantly, in later Roman times, the Aedile was in charge of the public treasury.[1] The later clerical Latin translation of "aethel" as "clito" may be a reflection of the fact that there was no such formal position after the Roman civil authority disappeared. "Clito" was from "incluto" and an earlier Greek word that certainly did not mean "noble" in the sense of an inherited class status, but rather famous or illustrious.

Some of the feminine Anglo-Saxon names in Æthel- survived into the modern period (e.g. Etheldred Benett 1776–1845). Ethel was in origin used as a familiar form of such names, but it began to be used as a feminine given name in its own right beginning in the mid-19th century, gaining popularity due to characters so named in novels by W. M. Thackeray (The Newcomes - 1855) and Charlotte Mary Yonge (The Daisy Chain whose heroine Ethel's full name is Etheldred - 1856); the actress Ethel Barrymore - born 1879 - was named after The Newcomes character. Notes & Queries published correspondence about the name Ethel in 1872 because it was in fashion.[2] The feminine name's popularity peaked in the 1890. In the United States, it was the 7th most commonly given girl's name in the year 1894. Its use gradually declined during the 20th century, falling below rank 100 by 1940, and below rank 1000 in 1976. Ethel was also occasionally used as a male given name during the period of ca. the 1880s to 1910s, but never with any frequency (never rising above rank 400, or 0.02% in popularity)[3]

People called Ethel
Fictional characters


  1. ^
  2. ^ Withycombe, E. G. (1945) The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names; 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press; p. 102
  3. ^ statistics cited after

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