The Secret Meaning of Names

Appellation Mountain‘s Abby Sandel, one of nameberry’s favorite guest bloggers, writes about what names mean beyond what the books say they mean.

When I refer to the secret meaning of names, I’m not talking about kaballah.  I’m not even talking about names like Nevaeh, where the so-called secret meaning is quite clear.

Instead, I’m intrigued by the difference between the meanings given by baby books and the reasons our parents pick our names.

Head to most baby name websites, or flip open your favorite book to Kayla.  Or Kaylee.  Or Kaitlyn.  Odds are that the guides will offer a one-word meaning: pure.  They might also note that Kayla, Kaylee, Kaitlyn and kin are considered variants of Katherine.  As well as Kathryn, Cathryn, Katrina, Katinka, Caylee … the entry could fill a page.

Name aficionados will pause and reflect that Katherine’s meaning is debated.  It is likely that Katherine’s origins are wrapped up with the goddess Hecate, she of witches and demons.  At some point the name was altered to more closely resemble the Greek katharos, which does mean pure.

But if your mother loved the soap opera Days of Our Lives in the 1980s, she probably had the popular character in mind when she planned to call her firstborn daughter Kayla.

Or maybe your father’s mother was called Kay, and Kayla seemed like a fitting way to honor grandma.

At least a few girls were named Katharine, with that odd double-a spelling, in honor of the legendary actress.  Those parents probably admired Ms. Hepburn’s talent and wit, not the murky meaning of her given name.

Some of the best names have backstories that are unique to the family in question.  Mallory doesn’t mean sorrowful if your parents met in Mallory, Indiana.  Then it means “small town where my parents met.”   And if your parents happened to meet there because it was a dark and stormy night, and your mom had a flat tire and the repair shop was closed and your dad just happened to be in town for a meeting and suddenly, there they were nursing coffee at the Mallory Diner just one seat apart … well, then your name means “serendipity, twist of fate.”

Likewise, a name with great meaning can be tarnished.  Robin Williams apparently named his daughter Zelda not after the notorious wife of Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald but after the video game.  It steals some of Zelda’s jazz age vitality.

When I say my daughter’s nickname – Clio – it means Little Claire.  No, it isn’t defensible from any etymological perspective.   The names share no roots, save that if you Google “Claire Clio” you’ll find yourself on Appellation Mountain.  (Google “Clio Claire” and Belfast-based musicians pop up.  Clio plays drums; Claire plays guitar.)  But Clio is our nickname for Claire Caroline Wren, honoring my mother and sister.  The origins of the name Clio matter – and please us quite a bit – but they come second.

This can go too far, of course.  The Beckhams did not need to tell the world that Brooklyn was their son’s place of conception.  (He’ll be a teenager someday.)  And I don’t care if I went into labor in a steakhouse, I would think twice before calling my kid Kobe.

Obviously, I’m fascinated by the way names evolve throughout history.  If I were a Kate discovering that my “pure” name had a wicked twist, I’d be thrilled.  But it is only part of the picture – and possibly the least important part.

The simple truth is this:  if you want to know your name’s true meaning, your best bet is to ask the person who named you.  And hope they have a satisfying reason.

Abby Sandel, creator of the website on names Appellation Mountain where this post first appeared in slightly different form, is the mother of two small children who lives near Washington, DC.

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23 Responses to “The Secret Meaning of Names”

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ailsa Gray Says:

August 28th, 2009 at 4:40 am

How true! And very interesting!

Despite being British, I did name one of my daughters Laura KATHARINE Francesca (with that two “a” spelling) because I knew that it was how Katharine Hepburn spelled hers, and it seemed “spiky” somehow, with attitude. Then when my third daughter was born, my father had just died and I named after her after my father’s favourite grandma, CATHERINE Julia Felicity – Catherine after the grandma, Julia because I loved it and she was also born in July, and Felicity – just because, although I was indeed very happy!

It did not seem odd that there were two Catherine/Katharines in our family, and although they are pronounced identically, to me, they have different “meanings”.

Never assume anything about anyone’s name choices!

ailsa Gray Says:

August 28th, 2009 at 4:42 am

PS They are not actually both CALLED Catherine/Katharine – Laura is called Laura. And that was because my favourite childhood books were the Laura Ingalls Wilder ones! And I thought Laura was suitable for both a child and a very old lady.

Abby Says:

August 28th, 2009 at 7:44 am

Thanks, Ailsa. What great names for your daughters! (As it happens, I have a cousin Katharine, also inspired by Ms. Hepburn.) It wears very well on a child or an adult. Here in DC, Katharine is also Katharine Graham of Washington Post fame – another worthy role model.

Barbara Says:

August 28th, 2009 at 10:22 am

Very, very true. My name technically means “foreigner” or “stranger” (derived from the Greek, and for some reason, people writing name books want to put “beautiful” in front of it, though it has no connection to the name!), but it actually means “ancestress who came over from Alsace-Lorraine as an indentured servant, whose parasol I’ll get one day.” And the rash of Lindas (my mother was one) may or may not mean “beautiful,” but definitely means “I was born when that idiot song about Linda, which was popular when I was born, and I got sick of hearing ‘When I go to sleep, I never count sheep, I count all the charms about… Linda…’ at some point before I was out of diapers.” Or at least, so she tells me.

Sebastiane Says:

August 28th, 2009 at 10:45 am

Its all very interesting. I wonder if the name Katherine’s meaning was altered after the Greek saint, Katherine of Alexandria (a virgin martyr).

JenMaselli Says:

August 28th, 2009 at 11:34 am

Great post Abby! I didn’t realize your daughter’s full name is Claire Caroline Wren. LOVE IT!

Ann(TobysMommy) Says:

August 28th, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Growing up, I always thought my name was incredibly boring. When I asked my mom why she named me Ann, she said “because when you were born, you told me that was your name.” That effectively stopped me complaining about my name in front of her…how to do you argue with that?

I named my son Tobias partially because I loved the name, and partially for the character of Toby in Sweeney Todd, a musical both DH and I are very fond of. There is a sweet lullaby song in the show that Toby sings, and has sung to him, and I like to sing it to my Toby at night.

k Says:

August 28th, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Sadly, the secret meaning to my name is “the one my parents could agree on after one rejected Caroline and the other rejected Hezekiah.”

Pam Says:

August 28th, 2009 at 4:14 pm

I just love hearing all these stories. One lesson: Make sure that whatever name you choose has a positive “meaning” behind it!

Abby Says:

August 30th, 2009 at 6:40 pm

K, I can hear that conversation between your parents! I’ve been wondering what compromise name begins with K all weekend. 😉

Emmy Jo Says:

September 1st, 2009 at 9:52 am

Great post, Abby!

My name’s technical meaning doesn’t fit me well — it’s listed as either “rival” or “industrious” in most name books. Well, I don’t have any archenemies, and I’m one of the worst procrastinators you’ve probably ever known.

But I was named after a sweet old great aunt — well, and the wife from “The Bob Newhart Show” (who incidentally was an elementary school teacher, just like me). Plus, the whole Victorian literary vibe of my name (think Emily Dickinson and Emily Bronte) fits me perfectly.

braveangel2 Says:

June 7th, 2010 at 12:28 pm

So according to this, Emmeline Rhapsody means “lesser-known cousin to the popular Emily” and “mom’s favorite word” 🙂

Leslie Owen Says:

April 26th, 2011 at 12:32 am

Even though my name actually means “surrounding the grey fortress,” (yikes!) it actually means that my mother loved Leslie Caron, which is why it’s “ie” and not “ey”. It also means she wanted to me to be named Deirdre but that name was shot down. The irony is I was kicked out of ballet lessons at four….

Jenna Says:

May 2nd, 2011 at 7:14 am

The Beckhams actually gave Brooklyn his name because Victoria was in Brooklyn when she found out she was preggers.

*person* Says:

May 4th, 2011 at 6:18 pm

My name (Claire) means “clear” in french (but you won’t find that if you search “Claire” because YOU nameberry, messed up and said it means “light”, trust me I know I went to French school) which is a boring meaning, but whatever, the name’s alright.

Caroline Says:

June 7th, 2011 at 6:36 pm

My secret meaning is ‘name my mum loved when my older sister was born but dad didn’t like, but was ok 3 years later with me’.

My sister is Frances for my Great Grandma – which makes up for the fact she doesn’t like France!

My mother’s friends (later on in life) thought my sister was named after my mum’s favourite film (Frances a.k.a. Baby – Dirty Dancing)

My child’s name will have more meaning!

Elizabeth Says:

June 22nd, 2011 at 2:03 am

It just occurred to me that I have spent so much time on Nameberry looking up my favorite names, that I have forgotten the meaning of mine!

Nyx Says:

October 15th, 2011 at 2:13 am

While Robin Williams might have named his daughter after the video game, the video game got it’s name from Zelda Fitzgerald. Just an interesting tidbit 🙂

Regan Says:

November 7th, 2011 at 10:28 pm

@ Elizabeth Your name happens to be a favorite of mine. It means “God is my Oath”. Love the name because it’s very elegant by itself or you can choose from a bazillion nicknames!

emilymaryjane Says:

February 10th, 2012 at 3:15 am

My Middle name Anne means grace which is great grandma’s name and no one in my fam even knew so I was named after both of my greatgrandma’s without realising

ninanoo Says:

May 21st, 2012 at 9:38 pm

Two months before we conecieved I was watching a holocaust documentry and one of the survivors was talking about her sister who parished in the camps. The name of the sister stuck with me, and I told DH that we should name a daughter that, and we did. 🙂 It is a rare name, but it fits perfectly with todays trends, didn’t mean for that to happen. LOL

TaylorBlueSkye Says:

July 17th, 2012 at 12:27 pm

I love this post!

I always struggled with ne meaning of my name. We are German, my aunt found my name in the movie credits (shame I don’t know the movie..) never heard of it before (popular in the US, rare here). It’s Dana (Pronounced Dah-nah), my dad thought it was too short, added an “h”, it was.

It does exist as an indian name I now know, but it feels ridiculous to claim these roots as a blond, blue eyed German with no ties to this country on the other end of the world.

Never got the connection to biblical Daniel either.

In old English Dana has the meaning “from Denmark”, at least we don’t live that far from Denmark, so…

I claim the English / American origin, because the movie was probably American. That’s what it’s really about, why did your parents chose the name, where did they hear it.

TaylorBlueSkye Says:

July 17th, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Ninanoo, I’d love to hear your daughters name 🙂

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