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What’s in a nym? The various names for names!

July 23, 2018 John Kelly

By John Kelly

Here at Nameberry, we spend most of our time breaking down the latest baby name trends and serving up some of the freshest selections for your newborn. But what about the business of naming itself?  That’s a little discipline called onomastics, or the study of names, a fancy-looking word from the Greek root for, you guessed it, “name.”

 On our blogs, we’re usually discussing given or personal names. A technical term for that is anthroponym, or “human name” in Greek. They range from the traditional Michael and Mary to the more modern Kendall or Kulture. The inspiration for our anthroponyms are many and varied. It could be a toponym, or “place name,” such as Memphis or Milan. It could be a hydronym (the name of a body of water) such as Thames, an oronym (the name of a mountain) such as Sierra, or a geonym (the name of a geographical feature) such as Cliff.

Theonyms, or the names of deities, is a very popular category and one seeing more ambitious choices in recent years with examples like Zeus and Thor coming into fashion. Astronyms (star names) such as Cassiopeia or Andromeda are lovely as well—and often take their cues from gods and goddesses. Back down to Earth are theronyms or zoonyms, the names of animals. Fox and Wren are on the nose, though many others, like Ariel and Tala, hide their fauna in their etymologies. Numeronyms are the names of numbers: Sextus, Quincy, and Octavia come to mind.

 Similar to toponyms are demonyms, the name for the inhabitants of a place. Europe leads the way here, with Roman, Florentine, German, and French romantic options, though consider Cypriot if you want something more exotic.

At this point, you’re surely noticing onomastics loves an -onym. That -onym comes from the same Greek root we see in the onom- in onomastics—and itself is related to our very word name. Most of us encounter it in the likes of synonym, antonym, or acronym, a word from and pronounced as the first initials of its component words, e.g,. NASA. Have you ever considered creating your baby’s name by acronym? Maybe Loml, or Love Of My Life? If you did, you’d have fashioned a protonym, a scientific term for the first name of a species. We think it would still very much apply to Loml.

Most of our -onym’s here are pretty obscure words, so why not add some of our own to account for some of the diverse sources of baby names. How about a floronym (name of a flower) like Lily or Lilac? Or an arboronym, after trees, such as Acacia or Sequoia? Or a gemonym, after precious stones? Thanks in part to the Puritans, virtues have formed many a name, though these virtuonyms—sorry, a clumsier coinagecan often sound more old-fashioned, e.g., Honesty, Faith, or Thurgood. If we name our son Thurgood, inspired by Thurgood Marshall, we might further call it an inspironym. If we name our daughter Faith because we hope for that in her life, we might further call that an aspironym. Have any other -onym ideas of your own?

Books make a big impact on us, and so we find baby names in the pages or authors of our favorite tomesa literonym, if your permit one more moment of wordplay. Shakespeare is bold for a boy, his merciful Portia graceful for a girl.

And while we’re on authors, some have a knack for giving their characters names that perfectly suit them, or aptronyms. (No, we’re not making this one up.) We can’t imagine Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge or Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane going by any other namethough we don’t exactly recommend you do the same. That is, unless you call your son the occupational name Fletcher and he grows up to be, well, an arrow-maker, a fate called nominative determinism.

Authors also write under pen names, or pseudonyms, with J.K. Rowling going by Robert Galbraith after the fame of Harry Potter, for instance, or George Eliot, the male name taken by the great Victorian novelist Mary Anne Evans. Their real name is called an autonym (self name). Not to confused with a cryptonym, or code name; Frank Sinatra’s secret service name was Napoleon while Malia Obama’s was Radiance. Doubling as aspironyms?

 There are many cultural rituals in naming. One is the patronym, where a personal name is based on the father’s. The Scots Mackenzie is, if you’ll allow us to Anglicize, “son of Kenneth,” while the Spanish Alvarez is son of Alvaro. The motherly, and alas less common, equivalent is the matronym. Some cultures flip the script with the teknonym or paedonym, “child name,” when parents are called after their children, such as a father, Malik, being referred to as Abu Zayn, “father of Zayn.”. And when a wife takes her husband’s surname, e.g., if Catherine Ellis marries Jones Montgomery and changes her name, her so-called andronym (male name) or gamonym (married name) is Catherine Montgomery.

Catherine Montgomery we could call a dionym, or “two names,” but if she went by Catherine Ellis Montgomery, we could call it a trionym, or “three names.” But maybe she goes by Kat among friends or family. This would a be hypocoronym, or hypocorism, a big word for “pet name.” If she spelled her name Kathryn, we might call it a poecilnym, a synonymhow about thisfor synonym. Catherine and Kathryn are also homonyms, a much more familiar -onym word. 

Some celebsMadonna, Rihanna, Prince, Drakego only by one name, or a mononym. Other famous folks lend their names to their legacy, like Darwinism for Charles Darwin or Forsythia for William Forsyth. These are called eponyms.

 We hope our children might go on to be mononyms or epoonyms, but when it comes to picking their names, we advise you to seek a euonym, or well-chosen or “pleasing” name. Not a caconym. (We don’t think we need to spell that one out for ya.)  Helping you avoid that, ultimately, is our onomastic mission for you at Nameberry.  


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