Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Name Etymologies

Etymologies of names are interesting. 'Brandon' has no single etymology; the name and close variants arise independently in multiple languages, sounding almost exactly the same and eventually in time being treated as equivalent but having no common meaning: Prince, Raven or Crow, Broom Hill, Sword. They also get appropriated -- the Irish forms of the name are not originally Irish, for instance; it was a foreign name that became popular. I tend to think of my name as broadly Welsh, but strictly speaking, in my case the name is derived from a surname, which means that in lineage it's probably Anglo-Saxon (Broom Hill, and thus the same as many of the towns and cities called 'Brandon' in the English-speaking world), or French (in which case either Sword or Firebrand).

I've always thought it interesting that we translate Native American names literally rather than latinizing or anglicizing them. Sometimes it's a simplified form, of course. Sitting Bull was really more like Thathangka Iyotake,  which apparently means something like Buffalo Watching the Herd. We tend to take Ancient Greek names straight, but they were always given to be meaningful (playing on the meaning of names was very common), so we could often do the same thing with them that we do with Native American names. But you definitely get a different sense of the Iliad (and one that's not really wrong) if you think of it as Chief Might of the People and Chief Great Leader drawing on their alliances with other chiefs to reclaim Chief Might of the People's wife, who had been abducted by Strong Defender, the son of Chief Courageous. A few notable Greek names and what we would probably try to capture if we translated them by etymology rather than just latinizing and anglicizing them. Of course, all of these are rough guesses of varying quality, some purely folk etymologies and some scholarly estimations. 

Heracles means Glory of Hera, a meaning that plays a significant role in his legend, albeit ironically. Jason probably means Healer and Medea means Cunning. Menelaus means something like Might of the People; Agamemnon means Great Leader. Hector means Holds Fast or Steadfast, Ajax means Earth. Many of the names in Homer predate Greek, so they are difficult to pin down. The folk etymology of Priam is Buyer, but scholars think it goes back much further and may mean something like Courageous. Alas, we don't know the meaning of Helen (although the folk etymology suggests Torch) or Paris, but Paris's other name was Alexandros, which probably means something like Strong Defender. The names of Achilles and Odysseus may predate Greek, but it's possible that the former means Sorrow of the People and the latter is connected in Greek poets with Wrath.

Socrates means something like Safe Power.  Xanthippe means Yellow Horse -- horse names in Ancient Greek are fancy-fancy, and so often indicate old aristocratic family, which seems to be the case here (and may be the reason for Xanthippe's famously nagging Socrates for his lack of ambition). Plato means Broad(-shouldered), with Aristocles (which may have been Plato's real name) meaning Best Glory, and Aristotle means Best End or Best Purpose, as his name includes the telos that plays such an important role in his philosophy. Best End, of course, was the tutor for Strong Defender, son of Chief Lover of Horses. Zeno means Of Zeus, Epicurus means Helper or perhaps Auxiliary Soldier. Gorgias means Grim. Democritus means Judge of the People. 

You could do the same thing, of course, with Anglo-Saxon names, e.g., Wulfstan means Stone Wolf, and Alfred means Elf Counsel. That also gives a different flavor to early English history.

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