Behind the Namer

Historic Names

Today’s guest blogger, Mike Campbell, creator of the popular, authoritative and highly respected site, 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 GrecoRoman 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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19 Responses to “Behind the Namer”

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Charlotte Vera Says:

September 9th, 2009 at 2:44 am

What a wonderful apology for the love of names! was the first name site I ever came across, long before I planned on having a child. I was thrilled to find a site devoted to names that didn’t have the word “baby” in the title. I owe many hours of pleasant time spent to Mike Campbell’s creation.

Nephele Says:

September 9th, 2009 at 2:57 am

Great blog entry, Mike! I especially liked the bit about how “Names provide a snapshot of culture.” Whenever I read about a particular place and time in history, I try to imagine what my life might have been like had I lived there and then. One thing I always think about is “What might my name have been?” Imagining how I might have been named makes a personal “connection” for me to any particular historical place and time. I really enjoyed your blog! — Your old pal Nanaea, from

susan Says:

September 9th, 2009 at 3:06 am

I love your website, Mike! I love to go to “search for words in meaning” and put in a word. then I click somewhere, I forget where, and suddenly there is a whole list of fascinating names from all different cultures. Sometimes I have a hard time breathing when I see the list. The inside of parts of my brain starts tingling with interest. I make a lot of lists of names on Nameberry. Your website is a huge source for me. I found it by accident by googling name meanings or something. Ever since I found your website, I have been so happy with it! I didn’t realize that so many people know about it. One of my favorite lists on your website is names that mean “deer”. Love Roscoe! I, like you, don’t think of names as just being for babies. I am obsessed by the sound, shape, meaning, and nuance of names.

Jill Says:

September 9th, 2009 at 3:31 am

I don’t think I’ve ever been to your site, but I’ll definitely check it out now! 🙂

I think that I’ve always loved names because creating combinations (sibling sets and first/middle combos) allows me to be creative, much like art and cooking. The combinations are truly endless!

I really enjoyed your blog, Mike!

Sylvia Says:

September 9th, 2009 at 8:23 am

Thanks for doing this feature! Behind the Name is the best name site around, IMO.

phaedra Says:

September 9th, 2009 at 8:35 am

Great post! I too love It’s such a great resource for the history and meanings behind names. So I’m pleased that nameberry had Mike guest post today – nameberry and behindthename complement each other so well. Between the two, I could waste … I mean spend … hours researching names. 🙂

Pam Says:

September 9th, 2009 at 1:09 pm

OK, I know this is my own website, but since Linda worked with Mike on this piece, this is the first time I’ve read it and I just want to say — great piece, Mike! Thank you. We’re honored to have you on our site and very much admire Behind The Name. I loved reading about your work and your feelings about names. Thank you so much!

Kathleen Says:

September 9th, 2009 at 2:25 pm

cool guest post – I love that website! thanks!

cay Says:

September 9th, 2009 at 4:28 pm

thanks mike!!!

i found your site by accident one day and never left. yours has to be the best site out there for names.

EvanescenceDolly Says:

September 9th, 2009 at 5:44 pm

Awesome post! Your daughter has a beautiful name too!

Boston Girl Says:

September 9th, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Hmm…looks like I’ll have to check out that site! I have no kids, but I do write, and I’m interested in names because of that…always looking for names for new characters. Thanks for the heads-up!

Sophie Says:

September 9th, 2009 at 9:26 pm

I have always loved names. When i was in the third grade i would have my dad by me little spiral note books for me to make up familys. My favorite names when i was little were Oliviana and Arden. When i found out other people like names like i do i was thrilled.I love your website i go on there all the time.

Lauren Says:

September 10th, 2009 at 2:20 am

Great post! Great points on why names are so fascinating!

redriding Says:

September 10th, 2009 at 7:07 pm

Yes, I loved the blog, and yes, I found Behind the Name online several months before I discovered Nameberry! (Maybe we should mention Behind The Name in “Sites we love”, Pam and Linda?

Like you, Mike, I get so tired of people thinking my obsession with names must mean I am pregnant (or, these days, more likely to be expecting a grandchild) – people just do not seem to “get” that you can be interested in etymology and names per se, without an infant in sight!

I hope you will not take this the wrong way, because I mean it as a compliment, but it is unusual to find male name-enthusiasts, so this is particularly refreshing. (I think it would be true to say that 99% of the posters on Nameberry are female, so it is great to find a bloke interested in the subject).

Natalie Says:

September 12th, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Love behindthename! Good to see name sites plugging each other! But what is his daughter’s name? I didn’t see it in the post.

Anna Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 5:31 am

Love your site and lovely to “meet” you through this blog. You are an inspiration!!

Jude Eadie Says:

September 30th, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Nice one Mike! And you gave my granddaughter a lovely name-Isidora!

Barb Campbell Says:

September 30th, 2009 at 11:53 pm

I’ll second that, Jude!

Cassie Says:

July 26th, 2010 at 12:56 am

This was posted last year on my birthday.

I love you website and you explanation of why you love names, I think this blog helped me understand myself better.

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