Names are more significant than one might offhand assume. I am thinking of first (or given, or Christian names) names, whose bearers may or may not be concerned with, or even aware of, their derivation and meaning.
Take, for instance, a woman named Chloe, which comes from the Greek for a green or tender shoot. Is she even cognizant of the etiology or epistemology involved, and even if she is, I wonder whether she makes anything of it. Whether it influences her personality and, possibly, even her behavior.
To be sure there is little evidence that a woman would think of herself as a green or tender shoot, or if she did, what that would result in. But what if her name was Spring or a man’s first name were Gardner, would that produce joyous effusions or a green thumb?
What complicates matters is that our English names have foreign or obscure derivations, coming from ancient Greek or Latin, Welsh or Scottish, Romance or Teuton, Hebrew or Arabic or Aramaean? Or when they are so commonplace that neither parents nor children would attribute any individual characteristic to them. When there are millions of Peters and Janes around, they become impersonal by their very ubiquity.
In other words, the more widespread a name is, the less it matters where it comes from and what it means. And heaven knows there are fashions in names. Right now there are Ryans and Jennifers in every bush, and minor variations (Kristin, Kirstin, Kirsten etc.) which only seem desperate measures to improve on Christine or Christina. None of them has that hint of originality that might mold a character—say, Maximilian or Isadora.
I cannot help lodging a complaint against Rachael, made current by that obnoxious TV food guru. This is based on a nonsensical analogy with Michael, which comes from the Hebrew “who (is) like a god,“ complete with the “ae.” that makes the “ch” hard. Whereas Rachel, likewise from the Hebrew, but with no “ae” in it, and thus a soft “ch, ”means “like a ewe,” i.e., gentle. (Years ago, there was a short-lived play that featured an eponymous Rachael.) This is what happens when illiteracy takes over, comparable to pronouncing groceries as “grosheries.”
I am not in the position to start a scientific inquiry into whether the imperial name of Maximilian (from Latin, maximus, the greatest, and long a favorite with European royalty and aristocracy) confers nobility on its bearer. but in “Rebecca,” the novel and movie, it seems to do so on its autocratic protagonist.
German, by the way, appears to have more meaningful names. Take Gottfried, for example, which derives from Gott and Frieden, God and peace, and, appropriately, we don’t find it much among the Nazis. The poet Gottfried Benn may have started out truculent, but ended up very much becalmed. The Swiss poet and prose writer Gottfried Keller was certainly much of a bourgeois naturalist, sometimes of a humorous, god-given kind. Better named yet was the German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the Gotthold meaning attached to God; the Ephraim, from the Hebrew, doubly fruitful. And, of course, Mozart, whose God-loving Amadeus seems applicable enough.
But to get closer to home, what about Aaron? It seems to come from the Hebrew for “(a) light.” The only Aaron I have ever known was the publishing star Aaron Asher, who was indeed a bright light. But would he have been any less so if, for instance, he had been named Claude? It comes from the Latin Claudius, a name very important throughout Roman history and to Robert Graves. It means in Latin lame, and may well have been initially the name of someone lame. The only Claude I have ever known is Claude Fredricks with whom I was good friends for quite a while. He was or is a charming gay guy, extremely learned (the only person I know to peruse a Latin text as airplane reading,) and when I mounted a play of mine at Harvard, he would call people to invite them to it under the assumed name of Dimitri Merezhkovsky, that of a well-known writer. Claude ended up as a beloved prof at Bennington, and the protagonist of a novel by Donna Tartt, but fame made him drop me. Could he have accomplished as much if named Gus?
I do persist in believing that, as the Latin adage “nomen est omen” has it, a name somehow rubs off on its bearer, or should I say wearer? How about my own John, recently aped by the annoying Jon? As Eric Partridge (my favorite lexicographer) puts it in his delightful booklet “Name This Child,” without which this essay could not have been written, “The name owes most of its vast European popularity to the Evangelist; its brevity and strength have contributed to make it, in the minds of the majority, the finest of all. m[asculine] ‘Christians.’ From Hebrew: ‘God is gracious.’”
Now I don’t know how gracious God is, or would be if he existed (think Holocaust). but, regretably, I don’t see myself as particularly gracious as a result. What is interesting here, though, is that the names of the three other Evangelists are nowhere near as popular, even if Mark, at any rate, is just as brief and strong. Besides, in many languages John is not all that snappy: Jovan in Serbian, Janos in Hungarian, Janusz in Polish. Giovanni in Italian, Jean in French, and Johannes in German (though usually in abridged forms, Johann or Hans) are all reasonably euphonious. But do they charaterize?
As for me, the only effect I can think of is exercise of my neck muscles, because often in the street behind me someone yells “John!” and I am optimistic or naïve enough to assume it meant for me, which it usually isn’t, and turn my head. But it is true that John sounds good in certain languages, like the Spanish Juan, the Portuguese Joao, Jannis in modern Greek, Jokanaan in Hebrew if the opera “Salome” has it right, and several others.
Spanish aristocrats have the most impressive names, because they come in bunches.
A recent Times obituary for Mary Aline Griffith informs that she became a countess by marrying Luis Figueroa y Perez de Guzman el Bueno, Conte de Quintanilla (and later) Romanones. Which reminds me of a true story.
A Hungarian fencing team once came to Madrid to fight a Spanish one. At a reception, they were to get to know one another. A Spanish caballero introduced himself to a Hungarian with his full complement of a dozen names. The Hungarian was ashamed of having a measly single last name. Not to be outdone, however, he appended in his introduction to the next fellow every Hungarian swearword and obscene insult he could think of by way of self-presentation. “Delighted to meet you” responded the man in perfect Hungarian, “I am the Hungarian ambassador to Spain.”
Spaniards, by the way, are not the only ones with such elaborate nomenclature. Consider the recent Times obituary for a distinguished French writer, academician and aristocrat, Jean d’Ormesson. His full name was Jean Bruno Wladimir Francois de Paule LeFevre d’Ormesson. There is method to it. His diplomat father wanted him to appeal to various nations. Bruno, a name popular In Germany, was a bow to that nation. Wladimir (note the un-French W) was to appeal to several Slavonic nations.
Francois de Paule is the French version of the name of an Italian saint. Le Fevre, sometimes spelled Le Febvre, was the name of several illustrious Frenchmen, one of them a victorious Marshal of France. Since d’Ormesson pere was posted to Bavaria, Romania and Brazil, it is surprising that the son had not also Romanian and Portuguese names bequeathed on him.
Names are a fascinating thing. My father, a good Yugoslav, observed that I had only one given name, whereas Americans often had more, so he decided to provide me with the middle name Ivan. This is a tautology, being the Croatian form of the Serbian Jovan, and indeed, my savvy friend Dona Vaughn calls me, as if I were a Kennedy, John John. A favorite chemistry teacher of mine at Horace Mann School uniquely called me Jack, on the basis of which I could have been, like Rousseau, Jean Jacques, or John James.
But what about Simon? Partridge says, “Simeon, Hebrew for obedient, hearkening. Already in the first century A.D. Simeon had been confused with Simon. In Greek, Simon is ‘the snub-nose.’ But as a New Testament name it seems to have been a mere Grecism for Simeon. Diminutive: Si.” Well, I am neither snub-nosed nor particularly obedient, and, thank heaven, no one has ever called me Si.
So I am John Simon, which once earned me a packet of letters intended for John Simon Guggenheim, and I forwarded to that Foundation. It did not earn me so much as a thank you, let alone a grant. But for many years, Yoko Ono generously sponsored my website with a monthly $500, which just now stopped. I wonder whether you blog readers could help support the site with a monthly $50? Yet do I even have ten regulars?