When Meaning Does Matter
October 27, 2011 § 8 Comments
I was inspired by the story out of India that 285 women were honoured at a renaming ceremony, a move by local government to drive a wedge in rampant gender bias that has resulted in a gender ratio skewed with more men that women by about 100 more boys per every 1,000 live births.
In India, and other places in the world, men are considered superior, so baby girls are unwanted. In some cases they are aborted or given up for adoption, but in the Hindu language, the widely-used Nakusa, or Nakushi, means “unwanted.”
Part of the reason Indians favor sons is the enormous expense of marrying off girls. Families often go into debt arranging marriages and paying for elaborate dowries. A boy, on the other hand, will one day bring home a bride and dowry. Hindu custom also dictates that only sons can light their parents’ funeral pyres.
The girls chose names like Aishwarya, after Bollywood superstar Aiswarya Rai, or after Hindu goddesses like Savitri (also known as Gayatri, she is the goddess of learning). Traditional names like Vaishali, which means “prosperous, beautiful, and good,” were also popular choices at the renaming ceremony. A 15-year-old girl, who had been named Nakusa by her disappointed grandfather, selected Ashmita, which in Hindi means “very tough, rock hard.”
Debate over whether a name’s meaning is important takes on a new level in places like India. Nakusa doesn’t sound, in English, like “unwanted,” but it does in Hindu, and that’s the language where this name finds its place.
In North America, the name Kennedy is freely used for both sexes, even though it’s Irish Gaelic for “ugly head.” But President Kennedy, and his assassination, were important moments in history, and honouring him became important. Massively popular Emily, and all its variants, is Latin for “rival.” We don’t name our children because we think they have an ugly head or we think anything negative about them. It’s also rare that the meaning of a name is completely obvious – Emily doesn’t sound like “rival” and Kennedy doesn’t sound like “ugly head.”
Other established choices with “bad meanings”?
Cassandra, Greek for “entangler of men.” In Greek mythology, Cassandra of Troy was given the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo, who was in love with her. In some versions, snakes licked her ears clean at Apollo’s temple and she could hear the future. But when she didn’t return his love, he placed a curse on her so that no one would ever believe her predictions. She was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba and foretold the fall of Troy, but no one believed her.
This name was in use sporadically throughout the middle ages until the 18th Century, but reappeared in the 1940s, peaking inside the Top 50 in the 1980s. The meaning isn’t dropping this name, though – it’s simply been overplayed for a while.
Audrey has been associated with the term “tawdry” in Renaissance England, but we all know how that’s turned out. In the early 17th Century, lace finery sold at (7th Century) Saint Audrey’s Fair came to be known as “tawdry lace,” as it was then known as “Seynt Audrie’s lace.”
Cameron and Campbell are said to be Gaelic for “crooked nose” and “crooked mouth,” respectively, but we’ve found ways to use them both. Cameron derived either from Scottish Gaelic cam (crooked) + shron (nose), or cambrun (crooked hill). I’m actually inclined to believe it’s Cambrun, due to geographical evidence versus the simple myths of Camshron. Campbell’s most likely source is caimbeul, which in Irish Gaelic meaning “wry/crooked/twisted mouth.” It refers to “the man whose mouth inclined a little at one side.”
As for the trendy names with bad meanings?
Mara is Hebrew for “bitter.” Biblical Naomi claimed the name Mara as an expression of grief at the deaths of her husband and sons. But it’s such a pretty name, a four-letter phenom, remembered as the name of child actress Mara Wilson, who starred in the ’90s remake of A Miracle on 34th Street, as well as the film version of Roald Dahl’s children’s story, Matilda. Actress Rooney Mara scored the lead opposite Daniel Craig in the upcoming American adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (Her first name is her mother’s maiden name.)
This name entered the US Top 1000 in 1950, peaking just outside the Top 500 in 1990. It’s been falling throughout the ’90s and 2000s, but in 2010 it was marked on the upswing again. I think it has higher to climb, too.
With old-fashioned names hot for girls right now, some of the names for boys that could come up with the trend are Calvin (French for “little bald one”) and possibly, Melville (French for “bad town”). Calvin is just short of trending these days, but it’s potential is just below Arthur for scale. Calvin was a comic book character, Cal Ripkin, Jr. played in more consecutive pro baseball games than any other athlete in history. It’s a Roman family clan name that became a surname for settlers inside Gaul. Calvin became first name to honour 16th Century French religious reformer Jean Calvin, whose ideas greatly influenced Presbyterian, Methodist, and Huguenot Protestantism. Calvin has never been unpopular (usage peaked inside the Top 100 in 1920), but has faded outside the US Top 200 in the last 50 years. The GGR trend could help its chances of a comeback – in fact, Calvin just entered the Top 100 in Scotland this year.
Melville is a tougher sell – it’s not for me personally, but it’s got a quirky vibe about it that may be a selling point to today’s quirkier parents (and there are plenty!) Unfortunately, my very limited French (shame on me!) is not limited enough to know what this translates to without having to think about it, but lots of parents don’t think that way. Most Canadians don’t, or barely, know French, in case you wondered about our country’s official bilingual status. Usage originated as a Scottish surname for colonists who evactuated a bad settlement of land in northern France and relocated to Scotland. Herman Melville, the 19th Century American author, wrote the classic Moby Dick.
Persephone‘s influence is expanding as the popularity of other Greek names like Penelope, and feel-alike Seraphina (Hebrew for “ardent, fiery”) also rise. Persephone means “bringer of death.” The daughter of Zeus and Demeter in Greek mythology, Persephone was Queen of the Underworld, and the goddess of death. But she also represented generations, and was the personification of spring; essentially representative of the circle of life. Hers is a meaning that has been taken too literally, and really means so much more.
Tristan is very hot right now – could Tristram be far behind? We love Celtic names, especially the easily pronounced ones – but both names are likley influenced by the French word triste, from the Latin tristis, meaning “sad.” This name may also derive from a Pictish original, Drostan. The Picts were a group of people living in what is now eastern and northern Scotland from before the Roman conquest of Britain to the 10th Century. Laurence Stern created a series of 18th Century novels revolving around the character of Tristram Shandy, who through a life of unfortunate events had come to narrate his life story and musings – including one on his own (fictional) name:
Tristram’s father theorised that a person’s name exerted enormous influence over that person’s nature and fortunes, with the worst possible name being Tristram. In view of this, Tristram’s father decreed that the boy would receive an especially auspicious name, Trismegistus. His mother, Susannah, mangled the name in conveying it to the curate, and the child was christened Tristram. According to his father’s theory, his name, being a conflation of “Trismegistus” (after the esoteric mystic Hermes Trismegistus) and “Tristan” (with its sorrowful meaning), both doomed him to a life of woe and cursed him with the inability to comprehend the causes of his misfortune.
You can take a word from any language and turn it into a name; or be inspired by a meaning on a name from another culture, and it doesn’t really matter in the end because Sad or Death are not your kids’ names. But kudos to those who arranged this renaming ceremony in India – because it’s truly not nice to be called “Unwanted.”