About Names: Chaucer gave love nudge to St. Valentine

Image Source: m01229 from USA (https://www.flickr.com/people/39908901@N06)

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. On Valentine’s Day, he wrote about the history of the name Valentine and how Chaucer gave us Valentine’s Day (sort of).

Did you remember the flowers and candy?

Today is St. Valentine’s Day, when couples the world over celebrate their love.

Valentine is one of several ancient Roman names derived from Latin valere, “to be strong and healthy.”

The original St. Valentine was bishop of Terni, a town northeast of Rome, martyred on Feb. 14, 273. Though not included in the earliest lists of Christian martyrs, by 500 he was being venerated as a saint.

According to legend, Valentine miraculously restored the sight of a Terni judge’s blind daughter, and the entire family became Christians. For this, Emperor Claudius II had Valentine beheaded.

St. Valentine wasn’t popular in medieval England — not a single English church is dedicated to him — but his name was brought to England by Norman conquerors in 1066. Families called Valentine had medieval ancestors named after him.

An Englishman was first to link Valentine with romance. Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), famous for “The Canterbury Tales,” also wrote “Parlement of Foules” to honor the 1381 engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. Here the poet dreams of birds flocking to Nature’s temple.

Translated into modern English, Chaucer wrote: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes to choose his mate.”

Though it was then believed birds chose mates in February, Chaucer was first to say this happened on Valentine’s Day.

Chaucer’s idea spread quickly throughout Britain and France. By 1470, people were calling lovers “my Valentine.” The saint’s legend was rewritten to say he was martyred for performing Christian marriages, justifying his link with romance.

Meanwhile Valentin had become popular in Germany and the Slavic nations, because of both St. Valentine of Terni and St. Valentine of Rhaetia, a fifth century missionary to Tyrol known as patron saint of epileptics.

In the 1850 U.S. census, the first listing all by name, there were 5,271 Valentines; 26.6 percent were born in Germany, while only 2.5 percent of the total population was.

In 1880, when Social Security’s yearly baby name lists start, Valentine ranked 635th. Its peak year was 1903, at 409th. It then slowly faded, leaving the top thousand in 1956.

Short form Val was in the top thousand on its own from 1930 until 1970, peaking at 523rd in 1952.

Valentin, the form in Spanish as well as German and Russian, has been in the top thousand since 1980. It suddenly shot up from 911th in 2006 to 614th in 2007. Valentín Elizalde, a popular Mexican singer gunned down by drug cartels in November 2006, was posthumously nominated for a Grammy Award in 2007.

The Italian form Valentino also had a huge jump after a celebrity’s death; in this case, Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926), the silent film heartthrob whose sudden death was followed by mass hysteria. Some 100,000 people lined New York City streets at his funeral, and Valentino jumped from nowhere to 683rd in 1927 — then just as quickly disappeared. (In 2006, Valentino returned to the top thousand. It ranked 675th in 2015.)

Valentine and Val have special connections with Nebraska. The city of Valentine, seat of Cherry County, was named after then-U.S. Rep. Edward K. Valentine (1843-1916) in 1883. Every year on Feb. 14, thousands of people have cards and packages mailed from the city to get the special postmark.

In 1923, Fred and Frances Fitch, then living in Cherry County, named their youngest son Val. Val L. Fitch (who died in 2015) won the 1980 Nobel Prize in physics for showing subatomic particles don’t necessarily obey laws of symmetry.

Father Valentine “Val” Peter (born 1934) was executive director of Boys Town from 1985 to 2005. He was named after his Bavarian-born grandfather, Valentin J. Peter (1875-1960), publisher of a German-language newspaper in Omaha.

Hollywood star Val Kilmer (1959) is probably best known for 1995’s “Batman Forever.”

Valentin “Val” Chermerkovskiy (1986) has competed on “Dancing With the Stars” 11 times since 2011, winning twice, including last fall’s season. To fans of the show, he’s as big a star as his celebrity partners.

As a baby name, Valentine remains rare — and may be changing gender. Forty-one girls and 31 boys were named Valentine in 2015. Best-selling novelist Adriana Trigiani’s “Valentine” trilogy, in which Italian-American Valentine Roncalli saves her family shoe business and finds true love, may be the cause. Whether male or female, Valentines will be associated with romance for centuries to come.