BY CATHARINE MORRIS
The other day the Editor stopped me on the way out of his office. “We’ve spelt Katherine Mansfield right, haven’t we. Why are there so many different spellings? You’re the authority . . . . Can we have a blog post?”
I certainly should be the authority by now, especially since my first name, though given a boost by the Cambridge college and Catharine Macaulay, remains one of the rarer variants, and therefore problematic. It was spelt wrongly on my bank card for years, just as it is wrong on my current work pass. When I give my email address out over the phone, I have to decelerate early on and lend the middle vowel a stern gravitas. The first time I met another Catharine, at a New Year’s Day party about four years ago, we gasped, and then hugged. I wonder how life is for the Katherines and the Katharines, the Kathryns and the Cathryns, the Katheryns and the Catheryns and the Cathrins and the Kathrins . . . .
And yes, where did we all come from? The Oxford Dictionary of First Names (2006) lists “Katherine” as the primary English form of the name of the saint martyred at Alexandria in 307 at the hands of the Emperor Maxentius. (The online OED prefers “Catherine”, as does the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, 2005.) According to legend, Katherine of Alexandria, a well-educated woman of noble birth (and a virgin), had converted fifty pagan savants, as well as the empress and Maxentius’s chief of staff, to Christianity. Her punishment was to be tortured on a wheel; this miraculously fell apart, at which point she was beheaded. Her cult spread from Egypt and became vastly popular, though whether she actually existed as a historical figure, no one can say. (In The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe, 2007, Christine Walsh writes that the cult “probably originated in oral traditions from the fourth-century Diocletianic Persecutions of Christians in Alexandria”; and that St Katherine "may well have been a composite drawn from memories of women persecuted for their faith. Many aspects of her Passio . . . conform to well-known hagiographical topoi”.)
According to the ODFN, the earliest mentions of Katherine of Alexandria are in Greek, in the form Αικατερίνη (Aikaterine). The name is of unknown etymology – the theory that it may be derived from Hecate, the pagan goddess of magic and enchantment, is deemed to be unconvincing – but an association with the adjective καθαρός (katharos), “pure”, led to spellings with -th- and to a change in the middle vowel. It seems likely that a variant starting with C emerged thanks to Latin’s aversion to the letter K; and that the various forms cross-pollinated. The ODFN says that “Katheryn” was informed by the use of the suffix -yn in other names. Personal fancy has surely played a role too. Perhaps the linguists among you can tell me more . . . .
Incidentally, my mother doesn’t know why I’m Catharine with an a, but my sister grandly tells me that my father was “probably thinking of the Cathars”.
Top: Katharine Hepburn, 1940s
Below: Saint Katherine of Alexandria, c.1507, by Raphael;
Catherine the Great by Dmitry Levitsky;
Katherine Mansfield, 1912