What's in a name?

Half Sigma recently told us, concerning the name “Brooklyn” for a girl, that…

When I think of Brooklyn, I think of graffiti and traffic and guidos with low-class accents and neighborhoods of black people. This is not something I would want to name my daughter after.

Personally, I think “Brooklyn” sounds about as nice as any other name.  But I spent a few years in Israel and it was there that I got used to the idea that a name is supposed to mean something.  To this day, it seems odd to me that names can be “good” or “bad” or “normal” when they are divorced from any literal meaning.

My guess would be that, among the highly intelligent people who read this blog, most of y’all know the meaning of your names.  You’ve probably taken the time, at some point, to look it up in a dictionary.  But there are very few English names that mean anything at all in modern English.  In fact, I can think of none – unless we count homonyms like “Harry” and “hairy” or “Art(thur)” and “art”.  A visitor from outer space would probably find it odd that English speakers (and speakers of most Western languages) give names to their children that mean absolutely nothing in their native tongues.  Names that appear to be random collections of phonemes.  Indeed, some names really are random collections of phonemes.

It is possible that our perception of “good” names and “bad” names, or “appropriate” names and “inappropriate” names is influenced by associations with words that sound like the name in question.  For example, “Mary” sounds like “merry” but “Mildred” sounds like “mildew”.  More likely, we associate names with historic personalities who also had them or, as in Half Sigma’s example, with places that have them.  When an American hears “Thomas”, he probably thinks of “Thomas Jefferson” or “Thomas Paine” – or maybe his late Uncle Thomas.  In any case, “Thomas” probably draws most of its meaning from the fact that other people had that name in the past.  It is unlikely that many people, when introduced to a man named “Tom” or “Thomas”, wonder if he is a twin (the name “Thomas” is derived from the Aramaic word for “twin”).

In contrast, Semites (and many other language groups, I’m sure) have traditionally given names based on the literal meaning of the word.  We see this in the Bible and Arabs, to some extent, still do this.  Since a person’s nature is not evident until later in life, it was common for one’s name to be changed.  Two of the three Hebrew patriarchs had their names changed in mid-life: Abram (to Abraham) and Jacob (to Israel).  When each one of the tribal founders was born, an explanation is given as to why he was named as he was.  Because Semitic names were given, and often made up, based on words tied to actual events, there was a great wealth of potential names.  In ancient times, and until very recently among Oriental Jews, the name “Ishmael”, for example, was acceptable.  Now, due to its association with Arabs, very few young Jews sport that name.  The (later) Ashkenazi custom, of associating names only with personalities who had them earlier, had prevailed  Many perfectly good Hebrew names are now found only among Arabs while they are shunned by Jews.

When my own children were born, I wanted to give them colorful names, but my (then) wife would have none of that; she insisted on more conventional ones.  I yielded to her will.  After all, she had carried them for nine months.

As for the name choices of inner-city American blacks, my guess is that they are a collective attempt to create a new naming tradition.  They do not consider themselves part of American white culture, yet African culture is almost completely foreign to them, so they draw their names from the fringes of white culture and alter them.  I see nothing wrong with this – but I reserve the right to laugh at them as the need arises.  I wonder if SWPL’s are also trying to carve out their own cultural identity.  Haven’t elite whites, from the Patricians on down, always strove to set themselves apart from the unwashed masses? Be it as it may, let us laugh at them too.

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2 Responses to What's in a name?

  1. lowly says:

    Strong through the sword; well, maybe in the past – what’s the word for ‘strong through the lead launcher’?

  2. Daniel says:

    Whatever happened to those good old Jewish names, Harvey, Howard, Milton and Norman? You don’t see kids sporting those names anymore. And when was the last time a Jewish girl was named Robin? It is amazing how trends can play themselves out in a few generations.

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