Behind the name of the next US president: “Hillary” or “Donald”

…and then there were two: Hillary and Donald. A week after Donald Trump accepted his party’s nomination for president, Hillary accepted hers, the first woman to be nominated by a major political party in US history. 

Running up to the big day in November, we’ll be hearing  a lot of these two names. So, what sort of etymological qualifications do Hillary and Donald bring to the White House?


The name Hillary broke its own glass ceiling, onomastically speaking: It was originally a male name. According to Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names, Hillary comes from a medieval form of the Late Latin masculine name, Hilarius.

The Latin Hilarius means “cheerful.” It was formed from hilaris and taken from the Greek hilaros (ἱλαρός), also meaning “cheerful.” Greek’s hilaros is related to hilaos, “gracious” or “kindly.”

There may be a yet deeper root for these Latin and Greek descriptors, if we look to Proto-Indo-European: *sel-, which the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots defines as “of good mood” and “to favor.” This root yields solace and silly, which originally meant “happy” and “prosperous.”

The name Hillary spread thanks to a 4th-century Gallo-Roman theologian, now saint, Hilarius of Poitiers. English observers honor St. Hilarius’ feast day on January 13, when one can celebrate Hilary-mass to usher in Hilary-tide. The timing of this feast was also used to mark court and academic sessions, hence Hilary term, at Oxford and Dublin.

By the late 19th century, Hillary became more popular  (and since exclusively so) for females. The double L spelling is a North Americanism.

Hilarius is a short way from hilarious, but this adjective is actually a late formation in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes it to Sir Walter Scott in 1823, when it meant, like its Latin and Greek forebears, “cheerful.” It soon characterized a “boisterous joy,” extended to and settling on “extremely funny” by 1925.


Sometimes with affection, sometimes with ridicule, and often with irony, Donald Trump often goes just by his first name: The Donald. Like his mother (and one of his golf courses), the name Donald hails from Scotland.

Donald is an Anglicized form of the Scottish Gaelic Domhnall. (The mh is pronounced more like a V. Domhnall also has its cousins across the Celtic languages.) Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names notes that the English spelling Donald was a misinterpretation of the original Gaelic and influenced by Germanic names that end with a D, like Ronald.

The Gaelic Domhnall literally means “world ruler.” Philologists think the ancient Celtic form was *dub-no-walos. This joins *dubno-, “world,” from an Indo-European root meaning “deep,” like the earth or ground, hence “world.” *Walos is anchored in *wal-, “to be strong,” seen in Latin-derived words like valor and value.

In the Middle Ages, many Scottish kings took the name Donald, as did St. Donald of Ogilvy, near Angus today. Clan Donald, also MacDonald (“son of Donald”), remains a major clan in the Scottish Highlands. 


The origins of Hillary and Donald are fitting in their own ways, aren’t they? Many want a wonkish Hillary Clinton to be more “cheerful,” a complaint others see as tinctured with sexism. As for Donald? Well, many can imagine he might just start taking down his buildings’ “Trump” signs to display some Celtic etymology instead.

m ∫ r ∫

3 thoughts on “Behind the name of the next US president: “Hillary” or “Donald”

  1. Reblogged this on WordSMITH MaverickArtista and commented:
    Thanks to Mashed Radish for his thoughts and words of inspiration!, Mr. John Kelly is it?!?! Well, we appreciate your grandios efforts here to teach us a thing or two as after all we must all be idiots. We do not know the correct usage of grammar or higher vocabulary skills such as tho aster on WP. Anyway, thanks to Cristian for your reboot and thanks to Cristian and John for allowing little old me to reboot this awesomely great article today;P Have an outrageous day there where you hail from Gents. CHEERS to you & yours!!;)


  2. I’m confused by etymology when the name no way fits the person’s personality having that name, yet I’m awed when it does. Any clue to why this happens? What is the role or purpose in your opinion of etymology? It seemed to “fit” characters in the Bible, why not now?


    1. Great question, Cynthia. Historically, many peoples chose names on a tribal basis: to organize, identify, and bond groups together. We see this in Iceland, say, as son is always named after his father (or the ‘bin’ in Arabic, the ‘Mc’ in Irish). We can also see it reflected, though much more broadly, when we name a child after a grandparent or the like. But a lot of modern naming, at least in some Western cultures, will about personal preferences, style, interests, more interior/individualistic values. So, this means that many parents aren’t necessarily going to name a child based upon the actual etymology of the name but more so upon where the name fits in an idiosyncratic or cultural space. Sometimes it lines up, sometimes it doesn’t. Like you, I’m awed when it lines up as well.


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