Question of the Week: How meaningful is meaning?

Some parents put a lot of  stock in the etymological definitions of names, while others brush that element aside as having little to do with a name’s real meaning and image in the modern world.

So, our question today is: how important a factor is the literal meaning to you when considering your name choices?

Would or did you actively seek out a name that means, say, strength or hope or love or beauty?

Would you rule out a name with a negative meaning, such as “pig” (Portia)  or “crooked nose” (Cameron) or “crooked mouth” (Campbell)  or “misshapen head” (Kennedy) or “bald” (Calvin), on the chance that your child will constantly be checking himself in the mirror for signs of a prophecy bestowed?

Or is this way down on your list of considerations—or maybe not even there at all?


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41 Responses to “Question of the Week: How meaningful is meaning?”

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Eglantine Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 4:23 am

I’d never choose a name FOR its meaning (I don’t think – though I did fall in love with the Japanese name Michi because it means “child passing by”), but must admit that despite a long love of Claude, I totally understand my husband vetoing it because it means lame or (perhaps worse) limp. There was a lovely post on the namberry blog about a name (Celia? Too pregnant to remember) and whether or not it should be ruled out because it means blind. In the end a lovely solution posed was teaming it with a name that means love – blind love.

Eve Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 5:10 am

I think meaning is important. For my daughter we wanted to have strong meaning names but one thing got in the way – the connotations of names. One name I LOVE is Blaise and we wanted to use it as a middle name as it’s the name of one of my best friends. The thing is it’s a boys name, not only that it either meaning limping or lisping [depending on the translation you read]. Sometimes I think the love of a name [because of who you relate it to] is stronger than the meaning itself. My daughter name:
Saraya Blaise Alexa = Princess Limping/Lisping Defender!

Abby Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 6:05 am

There’s the meaning, and then there’s what it means to you. If I had a dear friend or a beloved aunt named Mallory that would be far more significant than the derivation of the name. But without it? Well, yeah, I do find Portia a little bit off-putting for that reason.

One of our daughter’s middle names was chosen for the meaning – Wren. My sister’s nickname is Bird, and so choosing an avian-inspired name felt like a great way to honor her without passing down her actual name.

Kiki Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 6:52 am

I like meanings and think they’re important but at the same time wouldn’t rule out a name that had a ‘bad’ meaning. I think most meanings can be taken in a positive way.

Take Eve’s daughter for example.
Saraya Blaise Alexa = Princess Limping/Lisping Defender!
I would take that not to mean a limping/lisping princess who defends or a defender of a limping/lisping princess, but a princess who defends those who can’t physically defend themselves or speak up for themselves.

Meanings can always be interpreted many ways. Things are rarely as literal and one-dimensional as they may seem.

Celia = Blind
Dolores = Sorrows
Celia Dolores would mean Blind Sorrows? Or could you interpret it as Blind to sorrows?

Natalie Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 7:15 am

Interesting question. With five weeks left of my pregnancy the name-question is high on my agenda. As of now, we have several suggestions but nothing definite. I would probably steer away from a name with a negative meaning, but the difficult thing is that many names have different meanings in different countries/languages.

So, my conclusion is that as long as you love a name go for it! I think it is a great idea to combine names so that the meaning can be interpreted differently.

Tiana Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 7:23 am

I think meaning is important, but meaning doesn’t necessarily equate to etymological definition.

Namesake can be equally, if not more, important. If you name your child Kennedy after the president, Calvin after the reformer, or Portia after the Shakespearean character, that certainly changes the meaning, doesn’t it?

Lola Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 7:54 am

Meaning doesn’t matter much to me. After all, my meaning “laurel” really doesn’t enhance or distract from the name. Butt the poetry Petrarch wrote to Laura? Earth shattering read for a 12 year old me. That’s what made my name for me. And why family & associations win over meanings every time! Portia? Love it because Shakespeare used it. Cecilia/Cecily? Honors my Babci and best friend. Claudia’s a darling friend and as such has blurred over the meaning for me. I now think “friend” not “lame”.
As for those ugly meaning surnames, if they were in my family tree I’d use them (in the middle, always) but since not, they’re just surnames to me. Blah in first place.

Alyssa Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 8:27 am

If the meaning of the name is generally obscure– like 9/10 people would never know what Cameron or Kennedy mean– then, no, I wouldn’t care at all. However, if I’m choosing, say, a Spanish word just because I think it sounds pretty, I’m definitely going to find out the meaning. I met someone awhile ago who named their daughter Nouvelle. I asked what made her choose it and she said it was pretty, I said “isn’t that the word ‘new’ in French?” and she kind of shrugged her shoulders. “Pretty.” I smiled and changed the subject. I feel like that kid is going to feel as weird going to France as a French kid named “New” would feel coming to America. It’s one thing to me if she new the meaning and really liked the idea of naming a child something meaning fresh start or renewal, etc. But to just pick a word from some language because it sounded good and not bother to find out what it means seemed a little odd to me.

Laura Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 9:03 am

We pick our names based on what we thinks sounds nice and connections they have to our faith. I named my first son after St. Paul because I love it as a warm underused manly classic and I thought it would be nice for my son to have such a strong Christian role model. At the time I didn’t even know what the name meant. Last year (he’s 8) he found out his name meant small and he wasn’t thrilled. I tried to connect it to the humility of St. Paul (a different take on being small) but he wasn’t convinced – maybe when he’s a little older. We did have a good laugh about it though as he had been a premie so he was a small baby. Even though it’s meaning is a potential down side of his name I still love his name and it has set a high standard for me in picking other names that I love as much. Interestingly, dh and I have considered Cecily as a future girls name and the meaning doesn’t bother us at all – the fact that it sounds so close to Sicily is a bigger problem.

SJ Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 10:09 am

I agree with those who say that something like a family namesake or literary association outweighs the dictionary meaning of a name for them. However, if I’m looking at a name without any other kind of association for me, the meaning becomes much more important and can tip the balance between otherwise equal names. For example, I like the name Campbell for a girl–great sound, reflects my Celtic heritage, unisex but also gives feminine nicknames like Cammie and Bella. But the meaning of “crooked mouth” is definitely off-putting to me. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it makes me want to look around and see if there’s another name with similar properties AND a meaning I like better.

As far as my perception of other, already-named people goes–I don’t put a LOT of stock in the dictionary meanings of names, especially names that have become really popular. You KNOW that most of the people who made Jacob #1 aren’t thinking, “Yeah, the meaning ‘supplanter’ really speaks to me.” When I meet someone the meaning of their name is more of a novelty, an interesting bit of extra flavor. If it happens to work out that the meaning of a person’s name reflects something about them or their parents’ hopes for them, that’s really nice, but I don’t think someone without that connection has been cheated of anything, as long as their parents had some other positive reasons for choosing that name.

Bella Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 10:11 am

Name meaning is key for me. If there is an awful meaning, or one of the meanings is negative- it goes! On the other hand, a name will increase in beauty because of an amazing meaning on my list!

I choose meanings that have something to do this warriors, or God for boys; beauty, character traits, and God for girls.

People who don’t consider meaning sometimes doom their children in my book.

rachelmarie Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 10:30 am

Personally, I could care less about the meaning of a name. That is the last thing I consider. But, if a name I do love happens to have a good meaning, that’s even better. For example, my favorite boy’s name is Darwin, and I chose it because of Charles Darwin. The meaning of the name is “dear friend,” and while I didn’t choose it for that reason, it’s just an added plus.
Since people don’t go around saying, “My name is Rachel, it means ‘ewe'”, I really don’t care what a name really means. All that matters to me is the personal meaning.

It’s actually kind of funny, because I have a friend named Cameron, and awhile ago I told him his name means “crooked nose.” He laughed because he actually does have a crooked nose. Just a funny story about weird name meanings…

Sachiko Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 10:56 am

What I think is weird (and cool) is that we live in a country and culture where we habitually use names from other languages, which names we don’t know.

In Japan, where they use Japanese names, everyone knows the meaning of every name, and name meaning is a trend there. I am told that it’s very popular to give boys names meaning “Big, wide, expansive”. Not big in the sumo wrestler way, big in the beautiful landscape, awe-inspiring hugeness of the blue sky way.

Whereas here in the Western world we can be silly enough to give name based entirely on how it pleases the ear. (of course, this trend is taking root in many other cultures too)

With that in mind, I think it’s funny that most of us are okay with people using names regardless of meaning (e.g. Cameron “crooked nose”) but we look down on people who use Chlamydia or Shasheena or Apathy. Why? The only difference between them and us that they’re just a little more ignorant of the meaning of the names they’ve picked.

And what I also find funny is that some of us think it’s weird when people do pick names with English meanings–Justice, Lark, Valley, Dell, stuff like that. As though many of us prefer not to know name meanings.

Personally, I like too many names. I need reasons to cull the herd. Meaning is one of the criteria that has to be met.

When we were naming our second daughter, I had a “short” list of about 20 names that all sounded pretty. What finally decided us on Hilani was that it means “carried in the arms of heaven”. I felt an electric shock down my spine, I swear, when I read that.

In some cultures, names are just descriptions of life circumstances; in others, they’re hopes and blessing. Heck yes, given the choice, I’ll deliberately infuse my babies’ names with hopes and blessings. 🙂

Anamarie Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 10:59 am

I usually get turned off when a name means something negative. For example, Cameron or Portia. I have always loved the name Calvin, not for the meaning but for the origin. Its a Scottish name. I am Scottish, so its a name I’ve always loved. I look for meanings and origins of names. As well as the sound of it. Meanings to me can be anything. It can be the actual meaning or a family member. I just don’t want my child asking what their name means and having to telling them crooked nose.

My daughter’s name is Ada. Its German, and it means noble. The name meets all my critera, the origin, sound and the meaning. I love it! Her middle name is Catherine. Which is a family name. It also means Pure. Pure and Noble. What great qualties!

My son’s name is Oscar. Oscar Edward. Oscar is Scandinavian name and means with the deer. We live in Iowa, where deer are plentiable. (Sp?) So again, the origin, sound and meaning meet all my critera. It makes me love the name for all those reasons. My Dh is Scandinavian btw.

So if you have critera, don’t ignore it! Its what makes you love the name.

braveangel2 Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 11:43 am

I remember getting my first baby book when I was 15 and looking through all the meanings – Cameron was getting popular in my area, and I was surprised that it meant ‘crooked nose’. It was like my little secret when the obonoxious family next door, with a child named Cameron, would get on my nerves.

Mira Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 11:52 am

I’m grappling with this right now, because I’m really fond of the name Claudia. Normally I pay a lot of attention to the meaning of names, but I’m having a hard time discounting this name. Not sure how I’m going to feel when push comes to shove.

Linelei Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Meaning is definitely one important factor in my naming choices, but not the only one. If I fell in love with a name and then discovered it had an unpleasant meaning (like Moira, which I love, meaning “bitter”), I would almost certainly take it off my list – unless there was another, more personal meaning that counteracted it for me. For example, if a name belonged to a beloved family member I wanted to honor, I wouldn’t care if the name meant something like “smells like cheese” or such. But if the name has no sentimental value, I feel it’s a little bit selfish to name your child something with a bad meaning. After all, they’re probably going to try to find out what it means someday, and be sorely disappointed.

That being said, one of my favorite names has absolutely no meaning at all, because I made it up. And another of my favorites has meaning, but that meaning was also made up by an author. I don’t feel a name MUST be meaningful to the general population – but it certainly must be meaningful to me on a personal level. I would never choose a name just because it sounds pretty or is popular, or unpopular. I need to connect with it on a deeper level.

Becca Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Meaning is important to me but I dont think I would use a name JUST for the meaning! I would have to love the name too! I don’t have kids yet but when I do I will pick out names I like and then check the meanings and if they mean something weird like those above then I will take them off my list! I don’t want my kids to find out that they have a name that means something they are embarresed of!

Good question!

Linelei Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Alyssa: That’s the trouble with names, though – they could mean something in a language we’ve never even heard of! For example, I ADORE the nickname Mira (short for Miranda, or Mirielle, or a million other names I love). However, it means “look” in Spanish. Does that mean I shouldn’t use it? Would I be dooming my daughter to awkwardness whenever she was in a Spanish-speaking country/area? I feel that way about some place-names, though: for example, if you name your child Ireland, and then someday she wants to live in Ireland, I think people would have trouble with that! So it’s a dilemma.

Sachiko: I agree with you on everything! It’s weird that we don’t consider meaning more, and since there are SO many amazing names, it definitely helps narrow down choices. Your daughter’s name is beautiful, especially because of that meaning, and she is going to feel cherished and special because of a meaning like that.

Madi Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 12:46 pm

There are some names that I’ve fallen in love with because of their meaning (like Noelani, meaning rain), but I would never not choose a name because it has a bad meaning.
For me, good meanings only reinforce the love of a name (such as Auden, meaning “Old friend” according to nameberry), and bad meaning don’t matter if I love the name, such as Kennedy.

Amelia Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 12:49 pm

What a name means is contextual and it is therefore difficult to discern textbook meaning from actual meaning. While Celia literally means “blind,” contextually its reference is religious: as in “Was blind but now I see.” What a name means is important. It just depends which meaning you refer to: literal meaning versus personal meaning, versus association. You have a responsibility to know the meaning of the names you choose for your child because, at some point, you child will ask. You can either shrug and say “I chose it because it sounds good”, or you can say “I chose it because it means love is blind.”

Leah Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 1:31 pm

I think people often take the literal meaning of names too seriously. No one, apart from a few name nerds (and lets face it, we are the minority) , is ever going to know what Cameron means crooked nose. And even if it does have a bad meaning, the parents reason for choosing the name and the meaning it has to them far out ways the negative association. We love the name Cecily and could care less that it means “blind.” My partner is a huge Oscar Wilde fan and we both love the play “The Importance of Being Earnest.” So when we think of the name Cecily, we dont imagine a blind child, but our instead our favorite play and a beautiful girl.

Andrea Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 8:41 pm

I don’t think most people care or know about the meanings of names, unless the kid has been named something atrocious like “Sin” or “Python Grip.” My first and middle names translate to “pure and manly (or womanly, depending on the name book.)” Doesn’t matter or have any relevance.

Charlotte Vera Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 8:57 pm

I don’t think I’d choose a name for its meaning, but I would choose not to use it if its meaning was what I considered to be negative. As a name nerd who loved to find out the meanings of my friends’ names, I wouldn’t want my kid to grow up with the realisation that I knowingly named them something that means say, “unfortunate”, such as Mallory.

Freya Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 9:08 pm

I wouldn’t use a name that mean, let’s say, “terrible” or “worthless” but it isn’t a huge factor for me. My name, Freya Maureen, means Noble Star of the Sea/Bitter (Maureen’s meaning is debated, but I say it’s star of the sea because I would rather be Noble Star of the Sea than Noble Bitter!)

Freya Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 9:11 pm

Oh, and my favorite girls name right now, Thea Rosemary, means Goddess Flower!

CanaLyn Says:

July 15th, 2010 at 8:19 am

I think meanings COULD be important for a name in real life. I mean, the kid might look up his or her name one day (at least, if they’re babyberries like I was) and if you named him/her Portia Kennedy, which is a beautiful name but not exactly a pretty meaning, they might ask you, “Mommy (Daddy) why did you name me “pig misshapen head” Jones?” But if you’re armed with a good explanation you could easily field that one.

I think a lot of name meanings comes into play in writing, though. JK Rowling named Harry Potter’s mother (a pure and mostly wonderful creature) Lily, which means pure. Coincidence? Possibly, but I think not.

Hilary Says:

July 15th, 2010 at 9:59 am

I think meaning is nice- but a lot of modern meanings are derived from myth and lore.

I’ve always loved the name Lorelei. When I looked up the meaning on Namberry- I was horrified (Nameberry says it means temptress). Then, I did some more research- to find out that the Lorelei is actually an amazing rock formation in Germany.
Poets created stories about the rock- including one, about a lover, falsely accused who falls to her death in the Rhine. Legend says that the rock, Lorelei, is her monument. They say you can hear her whispers- like she is calling to her lover.

I now think the meaning is more like “strong” or “like a rock.” Any chance the nameberry editors will save Lorelei from an unnecessarily bad meaning?

Elle Says:

July 15th, 2010 at 12:41 pm

The meaning of a name is VERY important to me! When choosing the very thing that my child will be called for the rest of their life I want it to be something with true meaning.

When I was pregnant with my son my husband and I really liked the name Ben but we didn’t like Benjamin because of the meaning. It just wasn’t for us. Then we found Bennett (which means blessed) and fell in love! We don’t call him Ben but some of his cousins call him little Benny and I think it is adorable. I want him to know that we put a lot of thought into his name. Not only did we like the way it sounded to our ear but the meaning was absolutely perfect. His middle name and our last name fit so well with his first name.

He is “blessed – ruler of the house – homestead”

I think his home and homestead will be very blessed!

starophie Says:

July 17th, 2010 at 10:07 pm

I love meaning.
I will come out and admit that I originally discovered this website because I was looking for names that meant something for certain characters in a story I was writing.
HOWEVER, I will say that if I truly, truly loved a name, I wouldn’t rule it out completely based on meaning. As someone said, Celia/Cecilia means blind. But I adore those names, so while not at the top of my list, they’re still floating around there. I think you’ve got to strike a proper balance – and even if a name means something really cool, if I can’t even begin to sound it out, it’s not going on the list.

Rita Says:

July 19th, 2010 at 3:12 pm

I don’t think meanings are that crucial unless it’s an obvious association, or a word with an unpleasant meaning in other language. For instance, I love the names Dorothea/Theodora (which mean “God’s gift”) but I’m not religious in the slightest. The same way the comic-book association strong enough for me to like Calvin. But many times the meaning adds to the beauty of a name (I’m thinking Felix, Zoë, Victoria, Sunniva).

That being said, most of the times people find name meanings in websites and baby name books that are romanticised and care little about the etymology of the name. Like Freya supposedly meaning “noble star”, or Mary meaning “bitter” (just a few examples that have been posted in this thread). Obviously everyone likes to know the meaning of their names, but many times the meanings we are given aren’t even correct! Nameberry (a site I love) is guilty of this too.

linda Says:

July 19th, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Rita–Nameberry would really appreciate it if you’d point out any problematic meanings you come across–we’re constantly trying to improve them.

Smitty Says:

July 20th, 2010 at 2:45 pm

I really enjoy looking into the meaning of names, but I don’t think it will influence what I will actually name my children. For instance, we have agreed to name our first son Brody, which is a family name. (It’s my mom’s maiden name) Brody unfortunately is an occupational name which translates into ‘ditch digger’. Maybe we can call him Dig as a nickname!

Steph Says:

July 23rd, 2010 at 10:03 am

I’m with the PP who said that they chose a name first, and the meaning or etymology is just a bonus. My 1st DD is Claire Elise (Clear, God is Great) which to me, translated into “Clearly, God is great.” But I didn’t purposely choose her name to mean that. I just thought it was a bonus when it could be interpreted that way.
My second DD is Sophie Elinor “Wisdom, bright/shining one” so I guess that would translate to “the Wisdom of the shining one.” there was a link there for me with Elinor also having a meaning which is similar to Claire because it is also often interpreted as meaning “light.”
Now we are PG with #3, and I really like the meanings of the two names we have chosen: We have narrowed down to either Charlotte Olivia “Little dark one, Olive tree”. I like the meaning of little dark one because my babies were all born with a full head of hair. Charlotte is also sometimes interpreted as “Little strong one” and this baby has a mean kick so very appropriate LOL!
Our other girl name we might pick is Grace Evelyn, “Grace, desired.” In meaning alone Grace Evelyn one might edge Charlotte Olivia out!

Amy Says:

August 7th, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Funny to see my oldest son’s name in this question. His name is Calvin. I didn’t really let the meaning of “bald” get in the way. He was named for/because of John Calvin of the Reformation. That far outweighs the “bald” to me. We are searching for an appropriate name for our third son and having a hard time finding something we like that also has some strong connection to a hero or respected person in history.

Abigail(Abbey) Says:

September 29th, 2010 at 9:21 pm

Having a daughter named Toria, meaning has really bothered me. I’ve always loved the name, alothough it doesn’t have a meaning.

Heath Says:

January 11th, 2011 at 11:40 pm

I love name meanings

We went a lil out of the norm on naming our girl & boy…

Tahlia Isabelle
Tristan Elrad Rograe

We thought we had made up the name Ro-Grae as on one side of the family the name Robert traditionally is passed down and on the other side the name Graeme is passed down so we combined the two to then later find out Rograe is a name in itself.

A funny story about “bad” name meanings from back when we were only dating; I had bought my girlfriend a stuffed toy dolphin which she named Jezebel-Angel, years later when some church friends found out about its name they practically had an intervention to get its name changed to just “Angel” 🙂 lol

We also got a talking to about our strange name choices for our kids by a guy named John. Meh, anything goes in this day & age

Isabellissima Says:

September 14th, 2013 at 7:09 pm

I think it’s interesting to find out more about some of the meanings we take for granted. For example, Claude meaning limp and Blaise meaning one who lisps, and I think also Cecil/Cecilia being blind, those were all attributes that meant something great back then (in the antiquity?). It meant these people had a link to the heavens, oracles of sort. That’s what I read in a French name book anyway. SO it may seem negative to us now but maybe it isn’t always the case.

CsprsSassyHrly Says:

October 23rd, 2013 at 4:03 pm

I think meaning of a name could be important for me depending on my feelings at the time. But I would never choose a name or, more specifically, not choose a name because of the meaning. My feelings about baby naming, though I like a wide range of names, is that I would like to name all my future hypothetical children after a member of my (or the father’s) family, regardless of what the name’s meaning is. My mother’s name is Georgina, which means farmer, but that name (or it’s male counterpart, George, depending on what gender my first child would be) is going to be in my child’s name in on form or another. I’ve actually landed on Georgianne for a girl because the middle name I’ve chosen, Mireya, after my grandfather’s middle name, Reyes, doesn’t sound as good with Georgina. Of course, it’s Reyes George for my potential son’s name. Their meanings would be an oxymoron as Reyes means “king” and George means “farmer”. To me, the meaning has little say in whether I decide on naming a child that. It’s interesting to look at, but what matters more to me is that the name be important to me.

CsprsSassyHrly Says:

October 23rd, 2013 at 4:09 pm

Oh! I forgot to put a story about a couple I’d heard about. They had had trouble getting pregnant for years and then one day, found out they were not only pregnant, but pregnant with twins. At some point during the pregnancy, the wife miscarried. A couple of years went by and they got pregnant again. The second time, she carried the baby to term and they named her Miriam because of it’s meaning (bitter). They said that it was bitter-sweet because they knew that if they’d had the twins, they never would’ve had Miriam, but they had to lose their twins to get her. Meaning clearly had a lot to do with their naming decision and I think it’s absolutely beautiful. Despite the sadness behind their story, it’s actually hearing this story that made me fall in love with the name Miriam.

Haili73 Says:

January 25th, 2014 at 10:23 am

My parents almost named me Rebecca Rose, but their name book told them that Rebecca meant “ensnarer.” (nameberry says “servant of God” though, so I don’t know) They ended up finding Michaila instead (meaning “Who is like God?”) My dad’s name is Michael, so it fit. As much as I like the name Rebecca, I’m definitely not a Rebecca and I enjoy having a more unique name.

I’ve never really fallen in love with a name with a bad meaning. I did used to like Cecelia (after the patron saint of music) but after watching Aquamarine and reading The Goose Girl (featuring a Cecelia who teases Aquamarine about her name only to find that her own name means “dim sighted” and a villain named Selia respectively) I kind of stopped liking it as much.

But if Antonia and Rosalind had different meanings, I’d like them just as much.

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