Do You *Really* Know What These Names Mean?
It’s a predicament many prospective parents and lovers of names will be familiar with. You select a name with a perfect meaning… then you come across another source that attributes to it another meaning altogether. You’re forced to either return to the drawing board and look for a different name, or else to rethink how much etymology should matter to you in the first place.
However, if you start to dig, it often turns out that there is more than a shred of truth in both meanings anyway. We often distinguish between a name’s “real” meaning, which boils down to its etymology, and its various cultural meanings, which may include erroneous etymologies picked up over its history, its religious significance, or associations with famous bearers and popular culture.
Yet in many cases, disentangling etymological and cultural baby name meanings from one another is much more complicated than we might assume. Folk etymologies can be so entrenched that they irreversibly change the form of the name itself, becoming fundamentally embedded in its linguistic makeup. And often, opinions are divided as to which meaning is the “real” one in the first place.
Here are eight well-known names whose meaning has become obscured, or mixed up with other names, over the centuries.
Many names have been altered to make them appear to mean something attractive for religious, cultural, or poetic reasons. For Katherine — and Katharine, Catherine and all their variants — the most widely-circulated meaning is “pure”, implying that it derives from the Greek word katharos. (This gave us the English word “catharsis”, meaning purification.)
But the original form of the name was Ekaterine: the Latin spelling of the name was changed from Katerina to Katharina in the Middle Ages with the intention of emphasizing the association with the Christian virtue of purity. Ekaterine probably originally derived from Hekateros, a minor Greek god of a country dance, but the modern name Katherine has essentially been remodeled in the image of katharos. Rather than obsess about what Katherine's "real" meaning is, we can view both as part of the name's rich history.
Beatrice has a similar story. It derives from the Latin name Beatrix (now the rarer version), which is superficially the feminine form of Beator, literally meaning “one who causes happiness”. However, the name’s earliest known bearer is a 4th-century saint, whose name was also recorded as Viatrix, meaning “voyager”. Some experts say that Beatrice should be regarded as really meaning “voyager” too, with the spelling altered to resemble the Latin word beatus, “blessed”. Others maintain that Beatrice should be seen as a separate name with its own meaning, which just happened to have become confused with Viatrix.
The spelling of Oliver, likewise, was probably changed to resemble the French word olivier (“olive tree”). Chances are it actually derives from an Old German name such as Alfihar, meaning “elf army” — with the olive tree association purposefully reinforced to connect the name to an olive branch as a symbol of peace.
Anthony is another example of a name whose spelling changed to reflect a supposed (but inaccurate) meaning. It derives from the Latin name Antonius, but the H was added in an attempt to derive it from the Greek word anthos, meaning “flower”.
Antonius is of uncertain origin. Some have attempted to connect it to the Greek prefix an-, "without", + timi, "price", and therefore some sources say that it means "priceless". However, it probably comes from the place name Antium (near Rome), whose meaning is itself unknown.
Other names simply became confused with one another, leading to the popular belief that they are variations of the same name and share the same meaning, when they actually have separate origins. Some were conflated as far back as antiquity: the Hebrew name Simeon, meaning “he has heard”, was probably written as Simon in the New Testament under the influence of its Greek homonym Simon, meaning “flat-nosed”. In England in the Middle Ages, it was further confused with the Old English name Sigemund — meaning "victory-protection" — leading to the medieval spelling Symound, which survives in the surname Symonds.
Eleanor, meanwhile, has its roots in the medieval French name Aliénor, which probably either derived directly from the Germanic name Adenorde, meaning “ancient north” or “noble north”, or arose from a medieval compounding of this name with Helen. There is some debate over Helen’s meaning as well, but the theory that it derives from the Greek for “torch” or “shining one” is usually believed to be correct.
There has been a widespread belief ever since that Eleanor and Helen are forms of the same name, evidence of which can be seen in early records which referred interchangeably to the same individual as Eleanor and Helen, Ellen or Helena, and also in the large number of sources that incorrectly ascribe Helen’s meaning to Eleanor. The conflation of the two names can also be seen in the widespread use of Eilidh, which really derives from Eleanor, as the Scottish Gaelic form of Helen.
Eileen has similarly been used inaccurately as a form of Helen. Really it’s the Anglicized spelling of the Irish name Eibhlín, which is a cognate of Evelyn, ultimately stemming from Ava. No one knows its original meaning for certain, but a likely theory is that Ava — and therefore also Eileen — comes from a root meaning "island" or "water". Eileen started being rendered into English as Ellen or Helen during the colonization of Ireland in the 17th century.
Irish Gaelic names were “translated” into English as part of the colonial attempt to suppress the Irish language, but this was often based on similar sounds rather than an etymological link (other examples are the native Irish names Mathghamhain and Luíseach which became the unrelated Matthew and Lucy). Later, they were translated back into Irish in Irish-speaking contexts, and Ellen was often rendered back as Eibhlín, cementing the link between the two names.
All this shows how subjective meaning really is. Common sense often shows that usage can be more relevant than the original etymology in determining a name’s meaning. Most parents who choose the name Rose, for example, are using the name as the vocabulary word for the flower, not as a derivative of the medieval Norman name Rohese, meaning “horse”.
Perhaps the search for meaning should not involve simply tracing the name as far back as possible to its source, but as the entire accumulation of significance that has taken place over the course of the name’s journey. Multiple meanings aren’t mutually exclusive; they each add something to a name’s unique story.