30.12.11

Names and Naming, p1

1. Movements of Names

First names are so easily taken for granted; yet they are a treasure of revelations when it comes to a culture's history. The complexity of European names, for instance, reflects the incredible amount of movement (of population, such as migration or invasion, but also of religion and cultural influences) that characterizes its history. The Roman Empire survives not only through its law system which is still applied today, but also through the many Latin names still popular in countries like France and, naturally, Italy: Amanda, Antonio, Celine... Others were indigenous names that were latinized when the Empire conquered Gaul (Arminius), or later when they converted to Christianity, the language of which was Latin in those parts (the most famous example being Emperor Carlos Magnus).

France is also peculiarly rich in Greek names (Chrysmène, Althea), doubtlessly due to the many revivals of Hellenistic art and literature, the peak of which can be observed in the castle of Versailles. However, other Latin and Greek names arrived in France through the liturgies of the Churches of Rome and Byzantium, the former much more strongly than the latter (Deodat, "god-given", or Christophe, "Christ-bearer"). This is very revealing as to the religious background of the area, especially when set against the taste for Old Testament (Hebrew) names that is so obvious in English-speaking countries (Amos, Bethany, Sam). Very few Hebrew names are used in French, except New Testament ones -- Jean, Matthieu, Marc, Marie are classics.

Although Christianity overwhelmed local faiths in most of continental Europe, pre-Christian names survived and often outlived liturgical ones. In the British Isles the Celts, Scots and Welsh held on to theirs, passing them for equivalents of Christian names when necessary (like Welsh Alun equated to Allan, with which it actually has no link whatsoever). The Norse seem to never have bothered christianizing their names (as shown by contemporary names like Torsten, "Stone of Thor"). On the mainland, Germanic names, which are perhaps more numerous than Latin, Greek and Hebrew names together in Western Europe, remained the most common -- a reminder that a large part of Europe was built on the Frank Empire. From this language, combined with the very close Saxon and Scandinavian tongues, we get most of the best-known Western names, actually highly totemic: Bernard ("staunch bear"), Edward ("warden of riches"), Arnold ("all-powerful eagle"), Henry ("ruler of the house"). It goes without saying that names of Germanic root are the most common in Germany, though the German have adopted numerous Latin names as well. Greece has less Hellenistic names than we would expect: it has adapted Latin and Germanic names and modernized a few ancient ones, but also and mostly, it was influenced by Byzantine liturgy, which expressly moved away from ancient Greek culture.


A few isolated names can be surprise testimonies to old, almost forgotten migrations, such as the puzzling French name Arpade, the origin of which I was astonished to find in the founder of a Magyar dynasty. Another surprise was Amilcare, an Italian rendering of Phoenician Hamilcar, father of Hannibal who led his army all the way to the Alps during war against the Romans. Long after they had defeated the Punic general, the inhabitants of Rome began to pay homage to him and his through statues and, apparently, through the names they gave their children.

When such movements occur, people find themselves adopting names in a language that is not their own, and so the meaning is lost to them. A consequence of this is the adaptation of a root name into its local equivalent (such as James being the equivalent of Jacques in France), and the formation of infinite derivatives as spelling and pronunciation go through the test of time, not to mention the fashioning of feminine equivalents and vice-versa. In this fashion did Alexander give rise to Sandra, via Alexandra, among a plethora of other derivatives. Hanna (John), perhaps the most popular Christian name of all, is found in forms that only the continuity of tradition allows us to recognize: Sean, Zane, Yannick, Eoin, Shaughan, Ivan, Ieuan...

On the other hand, cultures that were more self-contained never lost sight of the original meaning of names and so we find names that have been in use, unchanged, for centuries or for as long as the language has existed. Japan and Hawai'i are extreme cases, where until recently the name pool remained uniquely pure. India is an equally peculiar case as derivations and equivalents occur within the country itself, between the different languages spoken there. Arabic names are an interesting example for they did undergo movement but it is very easy to trace. Very few have had their pronunciation altered, and when that happened it was because these were names whose pronunciation was incompatible with the local dialect. For example in Lebanese, which tends to soften all the extreme sounds of Arabic, the names Lu'lu'a and Nâ'ela (with vocal stops) would sound as creaky as Benjamina. They may be written thus on official documents, but we pronounce them Lulwa and Nayla. Other derivations may be caused by a diminutive, such as Barhum, "Little Ibrahim (Abraham)".
With the expansion of the Muslim Empire, Arabic names were carried as far as China and Spain, where they were adapted to the local pronunciation -- but it is to be noted that every Muslim, whether Chinese or Spanish, spoke Arabic, and therefore the names were less distorted than in the case of a Greek name borne by a Saxon. Some names were totally exported however -- who would think that Eleanor means "Allah is my Light"? It is probably through Spain that this one reached France and England.

Persian and Arabic names overlap much, and later on the Turks also adopted many of the latter, as they regarded Arabic as a "high tongue" the way Europe regards Latin. Thanks to the connection to Persia, we find that some Muslim names used today are literally ancient. My own name, Joumana, is an example: it has been in use so long that it is considered an Arabic name, yet it is really an old Persian word meaning Pearl (Lulwa in Arabic), which became Muslim before finally losing any religious connotation and spreading among Christians. I only met one person capable of spelling it right, a sign that for a supposedly Arabic name, it is oddly obscure. Some other pre-Islamic names fell out of use by force, forbidden by the Prophet because he judged them unworthy of human beings: Harb (War), Murr (Bitter), Kalb (Dog). They arose again in the past centuries as surnames, forced by the Turks on the people of the lands they occupied, but that is another story. It must also be mentioned that Hebrew and Arabic names have so much in common that when analyzing contemporary names, it is often impossible to tell which of the two adopted a name from the other, or if they both adopted it from earlier Aramaic, Phoenician or even Old Egyptian sources.

Arabic does not seem to have ever absorbed names from languages that were not directly related to it the way Aramaic or Hebrew are. Western names occur galore in the Middle-East, from Nicole to Josephine, but they are not adapted to the language: they are pronounced à la French, Italian, English or whatever tongue they were taken from. New characters have been invented to mark sounds like P, G and V (for names such as Peggy or Fulvio), which did not exist in the Arabic script before. There is one important exception, that of Greek names which were adopted centuries ago, under Byzantine rule, by the Phoenician and Syrian well before the birth of Islam. Boutros (Peter) is still widely used, but Thekla ("divine fame"), a saint's name that barely survives in French Thècle, is forgotten by the rest of the world. It is not exactly in use but an area named "Saint Thekla" testifies that it was, not so long ago. (As an unrelated anecdote, Saint Theophile was less lucky with the Beirut area that bears his name: the locals simplified it into Sin el Fil, which means "elephant's tooth" and figures high on the list of absurd place names.) The majority of Arabic names however remain words immediately understandable by Arabic speakers (Farid, "unique", Ghada, "mermaid"). Because of this, Arabic texts often have to put names in quotes to indicate that they are proper names and not words in the sentence. Let me also note that it would be a mistake to assume the pool of Arabic names is homogeneous across the Middle East. For one thing, multiconfessional, multilingual Lebanon favors "lighter" names, in contrast to "heavy" Arabic names are directly from literary Arabic. These are more common in Arab countries. For another, Jana Tamer shows in her excellent book Les Sources étonnantes des prénoms du Monde Arabe that most first names in the Levant are not Arabic in source at all, but Aramaic, and only make sense in that language. The politics of the Arabic language across the ages, however, are beyond the scope of this article.


In this day and age, not surprisingly, the circulation of names has never been so intense, nor the loss of meaning so clear. Until recently root names always had a meaning, for the latter was the very purpose of the name. Shakespeare may have been the first to coin names (such as Miranda), followed by other writers (Wendy was made up by J.M. Barrie for Peter Pan) but the coining of names for purely phonetical purposes is a trademark of the United States, especially for female names. Americans also began the unique practice of transforming family names into first names, usually after they first slipped into the position of middle name. Hence we find deForest, deTraci, laToya and other highly original (and hard on the researcher) names, but also Wheeler, Carter, Dean, Beverly and others that refer to medieval professions or dwelling-places. Not to mention adopting names of cities, s and tribes such as Montana or Cherokee. Although they inherited British customs and names, they were the first to spread the interest in Celtic and Gaelic names, which were not at all in favor among the subjects of the Crown. They also carry on the old European trend of importing names from "classier" cultures, such as done by the Russians with France in the last century, or by the French with Greece. Finally (?), they turned back to the original concept of meaningful names, browsing their own language for them: Melody, Sunshine, Sky, many of which (such as Rainbow) hardly survived the trend that gave birth to them -- just like French names such as Arrosoir (sprinkler), Sabot (wooden shoe) did not survive the French Revolution where they were used as a reaction against aristocratic names.