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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