Monday, August 23, 2004

Baby Names

What does it mean for a name to "mean" something?

This question has bothered me for a long time. We have several books of baby names, and you can find plenty of websites that purport to tell the "meaning" of all conceivable names.

Thus, this site says that "Gertrude" means "Adored warrior."

But what does that mean? You see, in English, we have two general types of names: Those names that can have meanings as other words, and those that are purely used as names. "Grant" is a name; but "grant" also means a transfer of money, or an argumentative concession, etc. "Mark" is a name; but it also is a scratch, or a signature, etc. But then there are words that are solely used as names: Michael, or Jennifer, or Harold, etc. It seems totally arbitrary to assert that those kinds of names have meanings, as far as English is concerned.

So when we say that "Gertrude" means "adored warrior," we must be referring to some originating language, here German. But did the Germans ever really use "gertrude" to mean "adored warrior," just as we use "grant" as a regular word in modern English? Was there ever a time when a German speaker might properly have said, "So-and-so is so well-liked and such a great fighter -- why, he is a gertrude"?

If so, how do we know? Baby name books are almost completely lacking in etymological background.

What's more, if all modern English names originated as regular words, does that imply that there was a time when older languages didn't have a separate class of words that were used solely as names?

4 Comments:

Blogger QD said...

I'd always assumed that the "meanings" were, for the most part, just made up as a marketing strategy. Especially when they're on those little cheesy mugs in the souveneir shops.

(Maybe I'm just a curmudgeon about it because my name never seems to mean much of anything...)

12:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

American Indian names are generally claimed to have very clear meanings in the various native tongues. However, they're more like sentences or phrases than singular words, in meaning, or so it is claimed.

12:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that most English names are thus similar to American Indian names, or indeed Chinese and Japanese names, orignally.

The words contain parts which had clear meanings, but were never used together as a common noun. To take Gertrude for an example, "ger" is old German for "spear," and the "trude" part comes from "thruth," (or "þruþ," if you use thorns), meaning "strength" in old German.

"Spear-strength" was never a separate common noun, but the etymology is still clear.

See here for some more reliable information.

12:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Grant" as given or surname in English has a different derivation than the verb "grant." The verb is, I believe, of Germanic origin; i.e., coming to english with the Saxon invasions. The name, however, is Scots -- its roots are Celtic. Though they sound the same, they are actually different words, with different histories.

That said, your point is still valid. My name is "John," which is said to mean "beloved by God" some language (Aramaic?).

John Schedler

8:52 AM  

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