As we know, Europe during the 19th century was infested with a toxic seriousness from which there could have been no peaceful escape. Bourgeois ambition, bourgeois respectability, respect for the law, rigid notions of chastity and purity, exquisite refinements of class distinctions and of the cruelties of class, devout adherence to ideals both religious and secular, love of country, an ethic of self-sacrifice, a booming but ruthlessly competitive economy, sound fiscal policies, and efficient public administration ultimately led to two bloody and pointless (but well-organized and efficient) wars, and in 1914 the world as we would have liked to have known it came to an end, and we entered the world of blood and iron.
The name Ernst / Ernest can be used as a marker of this horrible seriousness. This name, which is derived from the Old High German eornest (“grimly serious, fighting to the death”) spread from Germany to England along with the Hanoverian dynasty (Georges I-III) and I think that it is fair to conclude that the seriousness did too, and that with due reservations it can be called The German Seriousness. (Earnest, it turns out, is an entirely different English word which was, in effect, treated as a different spelling of Ernest; and the name Ernest was taken to signify earnestness, and in fact earnestness certainly could include bloodthirsty military eornest-ness: “Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.”)
French and British decadents and bohemians fought The German Seriousness as best they could, but there was no hope. Despite heroic offensives like Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest and Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (whose protagonist is a dreadfully serious preacher’s kid named Ernest who slowly wises up during the course of the book), the cause of unseriousness was doomed from the start. In 1871 seriousness definitively gained the day in France, where Thiers had ten thousand or more fundamentally unserious Communards murdered, and by 1895, when Wilde was sent to jail and his life ruined, the war had already been lost. One of the last victims of this horrible plague was Ernest Hemingway, who blew his head off in 1960.
For bovious reasons the name Ernst disappeared from American life after 1917 or so, and Ernest and Earnest have been declining since the 50s and probably will fall out of the top thousand soon enough. How much we will gain from this is uncertain; the “life’s a joke” approach to the world characteristic of our present wise leaders appears to be only marginally less horrible.
LINKS AND DATA
The word earnest traces back to Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, Greek, and ultimately Semitic words meaning “pledge” (as in “earnest money”), whereas the name Ernest / Ernst has an entirely different Germanic derivation. The late popularity of the name Ernest was probably due to a confusion of these two words.
FROM RANDOM HOUSE:
1175–1225; ME ernes(t), alter. of OF erres, pl. of erre earnest money < L arr(h)a short for arr(h)abō (perh. by taking -bō as a future tense ending) < Gk arrhabṓn < Sem (cf. Heb ʿērābhōn security, pledge). Cf. arras2
FROM DOUGLAS HARPER ONLINE ETYMOLOGY DICTIONARY:
O.E. eornoste (adj.) from a noun eornost “passion, zeal” (surviving only in the phrase in earnest), from P.Gmc. *ern “vigor, briskness” (cf. O.H.G. arnust “struggle,” Goth. arniba “safely,” O.N. jarna “fight, combat”) The proper name Ernest (lit. “resolute”) is from the same root. Related: Earnestly; earnestness.
American Heritage Dictionary
[Middle English ernest, variant of ernes, alteration of Old French erres, pl. of erre, pledge, from Latin arra, alteration of arrabō, from Greek arrabōn, earnest-money, of Canaanite origin; see ʕrb in Semitic roots.]
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law
Main Entry: ear·nest
Etymology: Anglo-French ernes(t) erles, alteration of Old French erres, plural of erre pledge, earnest, alteration of Latin arra, short for arrabo, from Greek arrhabOn, of Semitic origin.
Yonge suggests a development Arn –> Ern, making “Arnold” and “Ernest” part of the same family. (This theory is certainly appropriate to the cartoon above). The old form of Ernest was Arnust, a popular name in medieval Germany, but Yonge ascribes the wide spread of the name in Germany to Duke Ernst of Brunswick, a Lutheran leader of the Reformation era, and also to the analogy with the common German word ernst. She reports that when she wrote (1863) this name had not yet been fully naturalized in England, though it was “working its way in”.
UPDATE: Per Steve at Languagehat.com:
The Hanks/Hodges Dictionary of First Names:
Ernest (m.) English: of Germanic origin, derived from the Old High German vocabulary word eornost seriousness, battle (to the death). The name was introduced into England in the 18th century by followers of the Hanoverian elector who became George I of England. A variant spelling Earnest has arisen from the modern English adjective earnest, which is only distantly connected with the name.
[This makes the name Ernst / Ernest even more bloody-minded! Battle to the death, Hegel, Carl Schmitt, blood and iron, and the tyrannical King George III. Everything silently updated above. Thanks, Steve!]