My wife and I were discussing the delightful character Marvin the Robot when she said “Marvin… what an odd name. Where is it from?” I didn’t know, so I looked it up, and it turns out it’s from the Welsh name Merfyn (pronounced MEHR-vyn), the name of an early king. The Welsh name was borrowed into English as Mervin, which turned into Marvin by the same process that turned person into parson and (uni)versity into varsity. More fun with etymology! Oh yeah, the Welsh name probably means ’eminent marrow’: mer ‘marrow’ + myn ’eminent.’ (M becomes v, which is written f, for complicated Celtic reasons I won’t go into here; take my word for it.)


  1. And (I’m not sure how true this is) apparently “Myrrdhin” was deftly changed to “Merlin” in French to avoid the possibility of an unfortunate pun.

  2. Not only was he King Merfyn, he was Merfyn Frych, Merfyn the Freckled, a unique epithet that knocks the Fat and the Bald into a cocked hat.
    (By the way, that’s a non-restrictive ‘that’: are you listening, Safire? It’s a non-restrictive ‘that’ and I’m a native speaker.)
    And I believe it’s true that Myrddin was gracefully emended when the Welsh tales were brought into elegant French by the troubadours. Unlike m/f, there’s no general phonetic or phonemic rule that can turn dd into l across Welsh or French.

  3. The etymology is no doubt unimpeachable, but Marvin is ill-described as a mere ‘robot’ – he is Marvin the Paranoid Android!

  4. Quite right, and I apologize to ill-tempered androids everywhere.

  5. Somebody help me, please. I remember centuries ago in junior school being drilled iin a rhyme for the letter changes by our teacher, Miss Evans. They went something like “M, F, V/ D, B, G/ double L, M, Rh; L, F, D/ F, D, B/L, F and R; and then there was a third verse. This was some time in the pre-Cambrian era (also Welsh) so I’m sure I’ve got that wrong – can someone elucidate? Incidentally Merfyn, or more usually, Mervin, is still a common name.

  6. The best epithet of all has been translated as “Hogjaw”, though I can’t Google it in that form. It was on of the Hapsburgs.
    Hapsburg jaw

  7. LH, is that a similar e>>a vowel shift responsible for the British pronunciations of ‘clerk’ (rhyming with ‘dark’) and ‘Berkely’ (as in ‘Berkely Square’ in London, sounding like ‘Barclay’, as in the name of the bank)?
    You might be amused to hear that I know a London couple who ignored the when-in-Rome rule and went round the Bay Area asking directions to the B-ah-rkley university campus – deliberately, I think – though I’m not certain.

  8. Yup, same shift. And I am indeed amused; I hope they got baffled looks consistently enough to teach them the error of their ways.

  9. Conversely, your “Berkeley” story reminds me of the American couple in London who wanted to go to the Tutankhamen exhibit at the British Museum.
    Flagging down a taxi, they instructed the driver, “Take us to Tutankhamen!” and off they went.
    Some time later, the driver delivered them to Tooting Common.

  10. Interesting (the vowel shift, I mean).
    In my experience, San Francisco people are quite sweet and worldly about that sort of thing, so they probably didn’t even get baffled looks. In fact, judging by the number of odd Britishisms and affectations I hear coming back from one or two West-Coast friends I have (aren’t the West-Coast films made by that low-budget director who did ‘Clerks’ and ‘Chasing Amy’ full of deliberately arch lines from young hipsters along the lines of “Do not jest with me, my friend!”?), they might even have been trying out this odd tactic in one of the few bits of the US where someone might copy them.
    More to the point than baffled looks to my mind would be
    a) it’s a bit rude not to use local forms,
    b) I might accidentally get put on the wrong bus.
    As a result, I think I tend to slightly _over_use the Hungarian version of words where they have an international variant
    (such as ‘szamitogep’ versus ‘komputer’, ‘rendszer’ versus ‘szisztema’ and so on). It does feel odd to learn local words and then respect the fashion for moving back to the words I started with, though I should just adapt really.

  11. Michael Farris says

    “aren’t the West-Coast films made by that low-budget director who did ‘Clerks’ and ‘Chasing Amy’ full of deliberately arch lines from young hipsters along the lines of “Do not jest with me, my friend!”?”
    No and yes, those are East-Coast films made by the low-budget director Kevin Smith (born and raised in New Jersey). I’m not sure if they’re full of arch lines, but such do definitely occur.

  12. Possibly OT, but if you can explain to me why the original Welsh king was named after a large vegetable, I’ll tip my Derby (pron. ‘Darby’) to you.

  13. I found that odd as well.

  14. A vegetable marrow is named by analogy with the spongy mass of stuff on the inside of bones, the “real” marrow, which comes naturally in a cylinder. It makes sense to me if King Eminent Marrow was not King Impressive Zucchini (although that kind of works too, heh heh) but King Dominant Bone-stuff.

  15. E. Cobham Brewer 1810–1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898.
    Marrow (Scots): a mate, companion, friend. “Not marrow”—that is, not a pair. The Latin word medulla (marrow) is used in much the same way as “mihi hæres in medullis” (Cicero); (very dear, my best friend, etc.). 1
    “Busk ye, busk ye, my bonnie bonnie bride,
    Busk ye, busk ye, my winsome marrow.” — The Braes of Yarrow.
    “One glove [or shoe] is not marrow to the other.” — Landsdowne MS.
    Roget’s Thesaurus gives: “Marrow: The most central and material part: core, essence, gist, heart, kernel, meat, nub, pith, quintessence, root1, soul, spirit, stuff, substance.”

  16. I’ll vote for Merlin of the Great Innate Strength, not Merlin the Big Green Vegetable.
    If you scroll back to LanguageHat’s entries for April 11, you’ll find some people who can give more accurate information.
    Steve: at a tangent but, in relation to the current Pepys discussion, someone told me that Americans don’t refer to the circular, rotating firework as a “Catherine Wheel” but as a “pin wheel”. Is that universally true in North America?

  17. And re your apology to ill-tempered androids everywhere, I resent your slur. Marvin was never ever ill-tempered despite incredible hardships.

  18. The explanations given in below page for the surname couldn’t hold for the first name?

  19. While we’re at it, a Merlin is a sort of small falcon native to Britain. If this is the same name as “Myrrdin/Myrrthin” the wizard, then it’s not the same name as “Merfyn/Mervyn/Marvin”. (But Glyn, I’ll join you in voting for “Great Innate Strength” for the latter!)
    Does anybody know the connection to the sportfish called Marlin? (Uh-oh, sportfish again.)

  20. someone told me that Americans don’t refer to the circular, rotating firework as a “Catherine Wheel” but as a “pin wheel”. Is that universally true in North America?
    Universally? No. I discovered this empirically by asking my wife, a New Englander, “What do you call a circular, rotating firework?” She: “You mean a Catherine wheel?” I, a rootless cosmopolitan and a linguist to boot (which means I have no trustworthy native-speaker intuitions), think I say “pinwheel,” but the subject comes up so rarely I can’t be sure; at any rate, it sounds more familiar to me. I don’t know what the distribution is.

  21. Here‘s a direct link to Bertil’s page (nice site, by the way!); I suppose some instances of the given name may come from the family name, but I’m relying on the etymology given by Hanks & Hodges.

  22. There is a movie by Mel Brooks, “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”. In one scene a bishop is making fun out of name of sheriff of Rottingham. And name was – Mervin.
    I’m not a native speaker and I never was able to understand what’s funny about that name. Does anyone know?

  23. How can anyone explain what’s funny about certain names? It just is. Like “Murgatroyd.”

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