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Behind the Namer

Historic Names

Today’s guest blogger, Mike Campbell, creator of the popular, authoritative and highly respected site behindthename.com, explains what he continues to find intriguing about the subject of names.

My website started as a simple experiment, turned into a hobby, and then morphed into a full-blown obsession.  It is a bit of a “lonely” obsession; none of my offline friends share my passion for the subject.  I often neglect bringing it up, since the usual reaction I get when someone first learns that I run a website about names is a blank stare, followed by “oh, like for babies?”  I hate that.  Names aren’t just for babies.  In fact I had little interest in babies before I had one of my own a couple of years ago.

So why am I so fascinated by names?   Since you’re reading this blog chances are you have at least a passing interest in the subject yourself, so maybe you’ve been posed with the same question. Personally, I don’t have an easy answer since names have so many interesting facets, but what follow are five features of onomastics that keep me intrigued.

 

The subject is universal, and by that I mean it touches every person. All of us have a name. All of us use names on a daily basis. Most parents have had to dwell for at least a while on a suitable name for their child. This is not quantum physics, it’s accessible, relevant, and fun.

Names provide a snapshot of culture. Meanings of names can reveal the values of the time, from pious Hebrew names to warlike and proud Germanic names. Many people find history dry, but I eat the subject up, and names can provide some fascinating insights.  A neat  example of this occurs after the onset of the Roman Christian period, when the somewhat functional and restrictive Classical praenomina start to lose ground to more gracious offerings such as Amatus “beloved,” Benedictus “blessed” and Clemens “merciful”.

Names connect us to the divine. So many names reference gods and goddesses. The Hebrew god Yahweh, whose name was at times considered blasphemous even to be spoken, appears in dozens of common names of today, such as Joshua and John. Allah is referenced in  Abdullah, as well as many other names that combine Abdul,  “servant of …” with one of his titles.  In names coming from the ancient Greco-Roman world, Marcus and Martina both refer to the war god Mars, Denis ultimately comes from wine god Dionysus, and even the name of my daughter Isidora derives from the Egyptian goddess Isis. Numerous other examples can also be found in Phoenician names (Hannibal references  the god Ba’al), Egyptian names (Tutankhamun references Amun), Hindu names and Norse names.

Names link us to historical giants. Thus, the dim-witted Homer Simpson shares a name with a lion of Greek poetry. The Xanders of the world can look to Alexander the Great, Chucks to Charlemagne, and Eleanors to Eleanor of Aquitaine. The simple fact that  names are shared means most of us have a namesake of note.

The subject is dynamic, new trends are always emerging. Multicultural influences, creative spellings, and the ever-pervasive sway of popular culture means that the “pool” of names has changed noticeably even from when I was a child.. For this I’m thankful, since it keeps the subject fresh, alive, and something that will always enthuse me.

Mike Campbell, who lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and is the father of a two-year-old daughter, launched his site in 1996, seeing the subject of names as combining his interests in history and language.

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