As we greet the new year with big goals and big dreams, let’s not forget some of the big names that closed out 2016. In December, we celebrated and remembered many a bright and brilliant star, if the origins of many of last month’s newsy names are any measure.
On December 9th, acting legend Kirk Douglas turned an impressive 100. His birth name was Issur, a Yiddish variant of Israel, Hebrew for “he who strives with God” and alluding to how the biblical Jacob wrestled with an angel. Issur took the name Kirk Douglas before he joined the Navy during World War II. Like Issur, Kirk also has a religious root: It began as a northern English and Scottish surname, taken from the Old Norse word for “church,” referring to families who lived near them.
The late rapper Tupac Shakur, who was inducted in December into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was also born with a different name: Lesane Parish Cook. But when he was a year old, his mother renamed him Tupac Shakur, honoring, in part, Tupac Amaru, an 18th-century Peruvian revolutionary. Tupac is a native Incan name some define as “brilliant,” as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame definitely agreed.
We lost a lot of great artists in 2016, not the least of which was British pop icon George Michael, who passed away on Christmas Day. The musician modified his name from its original Greek form: Georgios. Georgios, a “farmer,” literally means “earth worker” (think geology). Certainly George transcended the lowly, humble origin of his name to reach superstardom.
In December, we said goodbye to another icon: actress Zsa Zsa Gabor. Zsa Zsa, who was born in Budapest, is a Hungarian pet name for Susan or Susannah, which come from the Hebrew for “lily. Many might liken the actress’s elegance to a lily, perhaps, but it was her birth name, Sári, that truly lived up to her glamorous lifestyle. Sári is the Hungarian version of Sarah, which means “princess” in Hebrew.
Released in early December, the movie Jackie, starring Natalie Portman, portrays First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis following the assassination of her husband, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Jackie is a pet form of Jacqueline, a French feminine diminutive of Jacques. Jacques, along with the name James, goes back to the Hebrew Jacob, or Yaakov. In the Old Testament, Jacob “supplanted,” as the name so means, his older twin brother Esau. Later, the Jewish patriarch wrestled with an angel and so, as we already saw with Issur, was called “Israel.” Jackie Kennedy may not have wrestled any angel, but she certainly wrestled with grief – though, as her namesake movie depicts it, always with grace and strength.
Founder Howard Schultz stepped down as CEO of Starbucks last month. His name, from an old Germanic source, literally means “heart-brave.” At one time ranking as high as Number 24 on the Social Security list (in 1920), Howard has now fallen off the list completely. After a career working in the coffee business, Schultz must have had a brave heart indeed – given, er, all that caffeine he was around.
The coffee plant originated in Ethiopia, where Lucy, the name given the famous fossil of an early human ancestor, that once roamed over 3 million years ago. (As the story goes, excavators rocked out to the Beatles’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” after her discovery in 1974.) This past December, scientists concluded Lucy didn’t just walk upright; she also climbed trees. This finding sheds new light on human evolution, fitting for a name like Lucy, from an ancient Roman name meaning “light.”
December was a good month for Ethiopia. The country is also home to Almaz Ayana, the record-breaking Olympic runner honored in December by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) as its 2016 female Athlete of the Year. Almaz should be used to shining bright, though: Her name comes from the Arabic for “diamond.”
The IAAF’s male prize went to Usain Bolt, who retained his title as the world’s fastest man in the Rio Summer Olympics. The Jamaican sprinter’s name is said to be a variant of Hussein, derived from an Arabic word for “beautiful” or “good” – and many would agree the runner indeed excels at both.
To bring in the New Year, R&B superstar Mariah Carey performed in Times Squares on New Year’s Eve – until, apparently, her earpiece stopped working. But Mariah didn’t stay quiet following her botched performance, as she hit back at the show’s producer over technical difficulties. The name Mariah, ultimately a variant of Mary, may mean “rebellion” in ancient Hebrew. Others, however, believe it means “bitter.” Either way, for Mariah, for us all, 2017 is a chance to turn a new page. Happy New Year!