“Oh, I LOVE your name!” is only one of these comments I usually get when somebody checks my ID. Yes, it gets boring – none is original. And, no, they are so wrong because our family name derives from the Norman word “bacco”, which means “warrior”. My maiden name is another instance for a job, that of a Silesian village provost who collected levies for the landlord. How I know? Because I love looking up names.
Names can tell you which people have settled an area first. Some are very obvious – all indigenous names in the US. I love looking them up because they describe a world view of their own. “Humptulips” over on the Olympic Peninsula is actually not merely as funny as it sounds – it means “hard to pole” a canoe. Tahoma, the indigenous name for Mt. Rainier, is the “mother of waters” – a description as well of the glaciers as of a source of rivers. But there are others that are not as obvious. Some places are named after discoverers or politicians nobody really knows about anymore unless you love digging in history books. Or you find that the language of a place betrays the nationality of its founder, such as the “bo” in Poulsbo hints to a Scandinavian as well as the “by” in Maltby, WA.
Checking the meaning of first names is fun, too. Some people really choose their children’s names for their meaning. Other obviously not. Mackenzie e.g. means “son of Kenzie” – I wonder when that turned into a girl’s name. There must be an interesting story to it. Or why e.g. Jackson, literally the “son of Jack”, works as a first name for a person whose father is called anything but Jack. Apart from that there might be more than one son, and all of them would have to have the same first name in order to specify whose they are. The Islandic do this by the way. The females are some male’s name’s -dottir, which means daughter, the males are somebody’s -son; but they have an individual first name, such as Gunnar Sigurdson or Kristin Sigurdsdottir.
There used to be a time in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance when people Latinized their last names because it was fashionable and made them look more sophisticated. German famous writer Goethe’s lover, then wife, Christiane Vulpius, would have had the simple maiden name “fox” in the Middle Ages. You have to admit that Vulpius has more grandezza to it. The name of Reeve became Praetorius, an Oelschlaeger (oil miller) became Olearius and so forth. A matter of vanity that is not much pondered on anymore.
Most interesting also are Jewish last names, which were enforced in the 18th century in Europe if a Jew wanted more rights in the absolutist society. They often use allusions to the Bible, such as animal, gem or color symbols for the twelve tribes of Israel. Or they were translated from their original Oriental form into that of their new home country – e.g. Baruch became Seligman. Oppenheimer or Ginzburg are referring to the town their family hailed from. Or they were simply changed beyond recognition in the attempt to disguise the Jewish origin – Mendelssohn is originally Mordechai, Frank originally Ephraim.
The science of figuring out a name’s or a word’s origin and therefore meaning is called etymology. And there are tons of websites and loads of books dealing with the subject. It’s truly entertaining and educating to dig into etymology. As a person carries a name for a life-time, I find it more important that their name has a good meaning than some extraordinary spelling. You could compare it to the inner self and the make-up you dab on or the shirt you embellish with some extra frills. The American girl called ABCD (pronounced ‘abseedee) or the German boy called Pumuckl (pronounced ‘poo-mookl) after a fictional hobgoblin in a German children’s book series will have to explain their names for a life-time. They will stand out for all the wrong reasons.
What’s in a name? In the end it’s a signifier for an object or a person. For a person it’s also an identifier. I won’t listen, if somebody calls “Hi, Susan!” across a room or a street – because I simply don’t identify myself with this version of the originally Jewish name. Just as I don’t feel addressed when written with a “z”. You probably experience the same when your name gets mispronounced or misspelled, right? The latter wouldn’t have troubled me as long as I wasn’t able to read or write. Another cultural phenomenon.
Do you know what your family name means? Or your first name? Where the name of the place you live comes from? Whether it even tells some history? Have some fun time and check it out. You have a whole weekend lying ahead!
Joseph Boyle says
Yes, I know about our names.
My name is Joe Boyle. You know, Joe, like in a “cup of Joe”. Joe stands for coffee. Boyle, like “boil”, stands for what happens when you make a hot coffee pour-over.
My wife’s name is pronounced “cherry” as in cherry pie.
The reason we stay together as a couple is we started out almost 60 years ago with our names, Joe and Cherry. When our names are spoken aloud, Joe and Cherry go together like coffee and pie.
Susanne Bacon says
As always you made me chuckle, Joe. Your wit is really something else!
Also, you are living up to the real meaning of your first name, “he will add” – always some laughter, some good time, sometimes some more pensive thought, never something that doesn’t add some interesting inspiration.
Kjeri stands for “happenstance” or contrariness” – well, it happened you met, and you are obviously contrary enough to create a successful couple.
As to your last name, ah, that must have been some of your ancestors’ fault, not yours 😉 I googled it and it might mean “rash pledge” (quote: Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Baoithghill ‘descendant of Baoithgheall’, a personal name of uncertain meaning, perhaps from baoth ‘rash’ + geall ‘pledge’). A trigger for some good story someday, maybe …
As you see, you names are quite inspiring …
Sharli McCollum says
Susanne Bacon says
I’m sorry, but I don’t understand your comment, Sharli.
Kris Kauffman says
Lakewood has hundreds of interesting and historic names, not the least of which are on the streets we travel daily, like Leishi (origin obvious) or Nyanza Rd.SW/Place/Park Drive (origin less obvious, unless one speaks Swahili).
Nyanza is Swahili for “lake area” and is apropos given our 14 named lakes in Lakewood. As an aside it is also the District on Lake Victoria in Kenya that President Obama’s father is from.
There are hundreds more….
Susanne Bacon says
That is interesting, Kris, thank you! I have learned Swahili grammar (not the vocabulary), and I always knew it had to be this language. But it never occurred to me to look up Nyanza. Now, of course, I wonder how the road, place, and park way came by that name in Swahili (not in a native tongue or French, Italian, Spanish etc.) – it was probably named way before President Obama was inaugurated.
As to Leschi (I suppose that was whom you are referring to) – that always makes the tragedy pop up in my mind when I come by a place named for him …
Your comment has made me even more curious! Thank you!
Jaynie Dillon Jones says
When I entered this world, my parents named me “Dorothy Jane.” Dorothy was my mother’s best friend, but they never called me by that name. I was always “Janie.” I felt very much like a “plain Jane” throughout the early years of my young life. When I was in 8th grade, my brother met and became engaged to a “Sandra Jayne.” Oh, my! Now her name didn’t seem ‘plain’ at all with the letter “Y” in the middle of it. She was a loving, lovely, beautiful young woman in every way. They were married in a big church wedding in the middle of June just after my 8th grade graduation. I was invited to be a bridesmaid in their wedding. That made me feel extra-special, too. At age 13 I began spelling my name “Jaynie” to be like “Sandra Jayne.” I have continued to use that spelling ever since. When Charles and I got married in ’94, I dropped the name “Dorothy” altogether and took the name and spelling “Jaynie” as my legal name. Last week a close friend, who was investigating a genealogy project on my behalf, made what was for me a stunning discovery: “Sandra Jayne” was also born a ‘plain Jane’ — and she verified it cross-referencing it against numerous legal documents. It is ironic to learn now at my age of 71 that her birth name was also the “plain Jane” spelling, just as mine was and yet I revered her over all these years in the mistaken belief that the letter “Y” in the middle gave her some super power as a super hero/heroine in my own life. And she was extra-special to me and within our family — with or without the letter “Y”.
Susanne Bacon says
What a fun story – and I guess a typical American one. Because changing or dropping names in my mother country would maybe possible but at what a price!
I had been contemplating to spell my first name with a z when I became a US citizen because people here care so little about the correct spelling of names. But my stepson strongly advised me against it. He said that the spelling had been me all my life and that it made me special. I’m glad I listened to him. He was right. It HAS been me all my life.
In the end with the both of us it’s just about one letter. But I guess there is a difference whether YOU make the change or whether your parents burden you with a spelling that you have to explain for the rest of your life.
Jaynie Dillon Jones says
As I mentioned, the Dorothy part of my birth name was a nod to my mother’s best friend. The Jane they named me after was the actress Jane Russell. That should have seemed special enough. But still I felt like a “plain Jane.” (That common expression certainly didn’t help!) Perhaps if they had instead named me after a different actress, i.e. Jayne Mansfield with the “Y” in the middle of her name, it might have changed my overall outlook on life from early on. But thankfully, my brother, who was nine years older than me, met and married that wonderful Sandra Jayne, who was intelligent, educated (a registered nurse), happy, fun, energetic and simply a joy to be around. Like GE, she brought ‘good things to life’ — with or without the “Y” in the middle of her name or mine. 😉
Susanne Bacon says
It’s so wonderful to have such an inspiring family member …