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Meanings of Names: Ever hear of Homophony?

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 By K. M. Sheard, of NookofNames

There’s an old method of naming first recorded in use in the Old Testament.

It’s called homophony, and basically is the principal of choosing a name because it sounds like something which the bestower wants to commemorate. Or, putting it another way, the choice of name was inspired by something, which, in most cases is entirely unrelated to the name.

It works in all languages; amongst the biblical Hebrews, for instance, there was a period when names which had become long-established were chosen because of their resemblance to a word or words which suggested themselves during pregnancy or labor.

This is partly why the meaning of so many biblical names have gotten so muddled. It’s common in the OT for the mother to make some explanation as to why she’s naming a newborn such-and-such, and this explanation was often interpreted in the past as being the meaning of the name, when, in many cases, it’s actually homophony going on.

Take Eve for instance  — transliterated from the Hebrew as ?aww?h or Chawwah (Chava or Hava in Modern Hebrew) Eve is always universally glossed as meaning “life.” But the Hebrew word for “life” isn’t chawwah. The word for “to breathe” is chawah, related to the verb “to live” chayah.  That the name Chawwah had been linked with chayah since at least the time the Old Testament was first written down is clear from an unambiguous line in Genesis:

Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.

The truth of the matter is what the real origin of Chawwah was is unknown. A root from which it might have come has not survived in Hebrew, but there is a contender in Arabic meaning “to gather.” The point is that Eve demonstrates the use of homophony in the selection a name right from the start of the OT.

So for those wanting to honor someone or something in some way, while still using a “traditional” or “established” name, homophony opens up a whole host of options, especially if you don’t stick to just English to aid your search.

Meanwhile, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries  in Ireland and Scotland, it became common for native names in Irish and Gaelic to be “translated” into English by adopting “English” names which resembled the native name — another example of homophony in use in the world of names.

So, for instance, Gráinne became GraceLorcán became LaurenceMórbecame MaryTadhg became Terrence — and Aoife became Eva and Eve.

The fact that the names had nothing whatsoever in common except for the fact they sounded a bit similar was not remotely relevant–homophony can be applied to foreign words with a particular meaning as well as English words to produce a glittering onomasticon of options on one chosen theme…

Here are just some of the traditional/established names which leap out from the suggestions made there, using words with stormy meanings:

Inspired direct from the English:

Inspired by stormy-meaning words in other languages:

So if you’re stuck for a name — why not play around with homophony? You might be amazed what you come up with, and you will be participating in a method of naming that’s been practised for at least two and a half thousand years.

This blog appeared previously on the author’s website.

A graduate of the University of Cambridge, K. M. Sheard is the author of the encyclopedic reference Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Names, and writes  Nook of Names, a blog on all things onomastic.

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About the author

Nook of Names

A graduate of the University of Cambridge, K. M. Sheard is the author of the encyclopedic reference Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Names, and writes Nook of Names, a blog on all things onomastic.
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4 Responses to “Meanings of Names: Ever hear of Homophony?”

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auroradawn Says:

October 14th, 2013 at 1:23 am

This is fascinating! I discovered homophony fairly recently in reading about how many Gaelic names were Anglicized by choosing a similar-sounding English name; in fact, I know a real-life example in an acquaintance, a Russian Old Believer named Vladimir who for years chose to go by Walter. However, I didn’t know it applied to so many Hebrew Biblical names. That explains why I can seldom find two meanings that match when I’m looking up obscure Bible names.

Poppy528 Says:

October 16th, 2013 at 4:12 pm

“The man called his wife’s name Chava, because she had become the mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20). The root of this name is connected with the word Chaya which means living, and the word “Chai” which means life. “Chava” is in causative form – i.e. she caused all the people in the future to live. (source: “Rashi” Genesis 3:20 with “Siftei Chachamim”). Chavah embodies both the essence of life itself and the creative ability to grant that life to others. The idea of “mother of all life” expresses not only the ability to physically give birth, but also to create, nourish, and enhance all facets of life. This is the ability of a mother – to take something from the state of potential, develop it, and bring it to actualization through her creative abilities. The question though still remains as to why Chavah wasn’t called Chayah? What is the difference between these two names? When looking at them in their Hebrew spelling, the difference in each name is one letter. The name Chavah has a vav which is numerically equal to six, and Chaya has the letter yud which is numerically equal to 10. The difference between these two number is four, the letter dalet. If we add the letter dalet to the name Chavah, we get the word chedvah, meaning “joy.” This teaches us that we transform Chavah into Chayah, into “life,” when she can birth with joy. The second understanding of the name Chavah focuses on its connection to the word chavayah, which means experience. Chavah is not only the mother of life but also represents the experience of life. The Hebrew word for expression is yechaveh, which is also related to the word chavah. This third meaning of Chavah can be understood as expression, revelation, or manifestation.”To breathe” is לנשום, the letters nun-shin-mem making its root – as related to the word or name Neshema, not Chawa (which is weird and unnatural to anyone speaking modern Hebrew).

Unusual Bible Names: From to Ashbel to Zillah – Baby Name Blog – Nameberry Says:

October 20th, 2013 at 10:28 pm

[…] Some things I learned: brothers Huz & Buz and Muppim & Huppim (not kidding!) testify that matchy sibsets are nothing new. Many Hebrew names, especially ones ending in -iah (signifying Jehovah), were unisex. It’s difficult to ascertain the meaning of many names, partly due to homophony (see the recent post.) […]

God & Names | The Oddish Chronicles Says:

November 10th, 2017 at 8:42 pm

[…] K. M. Sheard notes this incident as a classic example of the naming practice of homophony, which she defines as “the principal of choosing a name because it sounds like something which the bestower wants to commemorate” because Eve’s name is derived from the Hebrew word for “to breathe” (chawwah) which shares similar and related sounds with chayah, the word for “life,” which is what Eve’s name is usually maintained to mean. This trend continues throughout the Old Testament, as Sheard explains: […]

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