Friday, December 26, 2014

Getting into the Christmas spirit

As a child, my parents tried to teach me to play piano. I struggled my way through the exercise book until the first song that required me to use two hands at once, and that was the last song I learned in any serious fashion. However, the song immediately before that could be played with one hand, and had the advantage of having lyrics that could be sung loudly and out of tune.
Good king Wenceslas looked out // on the feast of Stephen // where the snow lay ’round about // deep and crisp and even
Every year about this time, aural memories of banging that out on the piano and singing it loudly enough to annoy my sister arise, and thus in honor of the season, today I worked on finishing up the DMNES entry for Wenceslaus.
This was a tricky name to determine a header for, since the vernacular spellings that it takes are so varied. Our standard practice is to use the standard modern English form of a name where it exists, and where not, to use the most common/standard spelling, either medieval or modern, in the vernacular. This works as a rule of thumb, for the few names that didn’t come into common use in English were often restricted in their use, medievally, to a single linguistic context. Eastern European names, however, tend to buck that trend, and since this is not a name that is commonly used in English, we were faced with having to choose between a wide variety of disparate vernacular forms such as Vjenčeslav,VyacheslavWięcesławWacław, and Vaclav. A professional onomast knows that these are all related names, but the lay person won’t necessarily, and would not know to, e.g., look for forms of Vaclav underneath the header, e.g,Więcesław. So in this case we decided to go with the spelling most likely to be familiar to English-speakers, via the Christmas carol: Wenceslas.
The name was popular amongst kings of Bohemia in the 13th to 15th centuries, and it is not surprising that the bulk of our citations for the name, so far, come from that part of the world (Brno, Moravia, to be precise). However, the name also crept westward, and diminutive forms of it can be found in Germany. As a teaser, here are the citations we have so far:


  • 1349: Wenceslaus (Latin, nom.)
  • 1349: Wencezlao (Latin, dat.)
  • 1349: Wencezslaus (Latin, nom.)
  • 1350: Wenceslao (Latin, dat.)
  • 1350: Wenceslaus (Latin, nom.)
  • 1351: Wenczeslao (Latin, dat.)
  • 1353: Wenczeslaus (Latin, nom.)


  • 1497: Wentzel (German)
  • 1497: Wentzell (German)

No comments:

Post a Comment