What’s in a Name? Part II

As it’s been a while since I did a post like this, and lately I’ve been thinking about some interesting names, I decided that once more I wanted to look at the meaning and origins of some common English-language names. So then…

… what’s in a name?

Adam: unsurprisingly Hebrew in origin, given the name’s importance in Judaism and Christianity, the name simply means man or mankind. And given that the Biblical Adam was the father of all mankind, according to the Book of Genesis, it’s a pretty fitting name. I wonder what it must feel like to know that that’s what your name means. I can’t help but think that I might be a bit arrogant if I were an Adam, and see myself as the epitome of mankind. Which takes us to…

Eve: now this is an interesting one. It seems to come from the Hebrew Hawwah, meaning simply living being. It’s strange that Adam gets to represent all of humanity, whereas Eve is simply an individual being, and not even specified as human. An early example of sexism in nomenclature, perhaps. Even more interestingly though, is the fact that the name Eve may actually be derived from the similar-sounding Aramaic word for serpent! Which certainly makes the story of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge much more open to interpretation.

Peter: staying on the Biblical theme, but this time jumping forward to the New Testament. Peter comes from the Latin Petrus (itself from the Greek Petros), meaning rock or stone. According to the Bible, Jesus gave the nickname Peter to his apostle Simon Bar-Jona, as he would be the symbolic rock upon which the Christian church would be founded. Related modern words are petrified/petrification, literally meaning turned to stone, and saltpetre (potassium nitrate), meaning salt of rock.

Veronica: seemingly from the Latin vera (true) and the Greek eikon (image, and also origin of the word icon). This came about as Saint Veronica was traditionally believed to have been the women who wiped Jesus’ face as he carried his cross to Calvary. The name became popularised as The Stations of the Cross spread, from which the name comes.

Maeve: an old Irish name which is perhaps best-known internationally from the TV programme Westworld. Spelled Medbh or Méadhbh in the Irish language, it means she who intoxicates. Which can be taken either way really, so if you’re pondering this name for your child, make sure you really think about it.

Oscar: the third most-popular male name in Sweden, this is actually another name of Irish origin. It comes from the words os (deer) and cara (friend). The name was popularised in the 18th century by the Ossianic poetry of the Scottish writer James Macpherson, which featured a hero named Oscar. The name is so popular in Sweden because Napoleon was very fond of Macpherson’s poetry, and gave the name Oscar to his godson Joseph Bernadotte (even though he clearly already had one, but I guess Emperors can do that), who went on to become King Oscar I of Sweden.

Evelyn: from the Norman French Aveline, itself from Ava, of German origin but uncertain meaning, perhaps a variant of Eve. The most interesting thing about this name is that it’s unisex. Though nowadays it’s predominantly a female name, until the 20th century it could be acceptably given to a boy. Perhaps the most famous male Evelyn is the English writer Evelyn Waugh (who’s often erroneously but understandably assumed to have been a woman). Also of note is the pronunciation of his name: it’s two syllables, with the first one featuring the long /i:/ sound: Eeve-lyn, basically. Of course the name is perhaps more commonly pronounced with the shorter /e/ sound, and the second e can also be pronounced to give the name three syllables. While there’s no one strictly correct pronunciation, the longer /i:/ sound tended to be used more when it was a male name.

So that’s today’s trawl through common names, from the Bible, to Napoleon, all the way to Brideshead Revisited. And I think I’ll revisit this idea again in the future for Part III!


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