above, two sources of names for the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names. The example directly above is a gravestone for "Zosime, daughter of Herakleon", from Syria, late 1st century B.C. The hands on the stele symbolize her relatives' vow to avenge her death which was apparently not a natural one.First, if you don't regularly visit Arts & Letters Daily you ought to. Its like a cultured news aggregate: The front page has regularly updated links and brief teasers for essays, reviews, investigative journalism and opinion pieces from a varied and international roster of publications and sites.
And so it was on one of my perusals of A&LD that I came across a delightful review of "A Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, Vol. V. A Coastal Asia Minor: Pontos to Ionia edited by T. Corsten" in the London Review of Books. The Lexicon project (it's a site as well as publication):
traces every bearer of every name, drawing on a huge variety of evidence, from personal tombstones, dedications, works of art, to civic decrees, treaties, citizen-lists etc., as well as literature, artefacts, graffiti etc.A staggering thought: someone compiled a register of all ancient Greek names that were permanently recorded on "paper" or stone, from the age of Homer to early Byzantium.
And God love the British, the review of the book runs to approximately 5600 words. Doesn't sound very promising ... But in fact the reviewer James Davidson, an academic who makes something of a specialty of writing about the odder corners of ancient Greece, offers up a witty and expansive background essay of names and naming in England before moving on to the Greeks.
I have always been intrigued by fashions in naming (whither Dorcas and Edna?) and oddities of conception (see Puritan names below) so I found Davidson's essay extremely informative and fun. He notes the liberality and inventiveness of naming in English-speaking countries. Moon Unit Zappa, Trig and Track Palin and assorted Hennessys, Apples and Prince Michaels et al. are "self-conscious expression of an assumed freedom to name children whatever parents want." By way of contrast he cites an Italian couple wanting to name their child Venerdì (Friday). A judge, having refused to allow it, renamed the kid Gregorio. Until recently some other countries, notably Germany, Sweden and Denmark, had maintained lists of approved names!
He goes on to relate the dramatic upheaval in English naming after the Norman Conquest. With the ensuing influx of French and other Romance languages native names such as Aethelwulf, Aethelflaed, Frithuswith, Ealdred go the way of Grendel, being rapidly replaced with Geoffreys, Henrys and Eleanors. Davidson uses this episode to explain label names versus transparent names— terms I'd never heard before. A label name would be, for example, Geoffrey (or Geoffroi). It doesn't give you much information to go on—especially if you don't speak French and not even the sounds are familiar. To a post-Conquest Briton Geoffrey is opaque. By contrast the native speakers used transparent monikers–which literally meant something to native ears–like Aethelflaed, ‘Noble Beauty,’ or Aethelraed, ‘Noble Counsel.'
In this, the Anglo-Saxons were very much like the Greeks whose names in large part mean something. This made me think of Native American names and the strange convention we have of translating some: Tashunka Witko is known to us as ‘Crazy Horse’, Tatanka Iyotake is ‘Sitting Bull’—but leaving others to be merely transcribed: Sacagawea or absurdly, even Tonto. The translation into everyday English words makes the names paradoxically alien and somewhat ridiculous. Anglo-Saxon and Native American names are transparent and Greek ones are similarly transparent in the native language. If we translated the ancient Greek names as we do Indians' we'd come across 'He Who Loves Horses’ (Philip), ‘Masters (with) Horses’ (Hippocrates), ‘Flat-Nose’ (Simon), ‘Stocky’ or 'Broad' (Plato), ‘Famed as Wise’ (Sophocles) and Peace (Irene). Greeks seem to have taken pleasure in making up names:
Epic poetry is full of names, a fair number of which must have been made up by the poet... In Theogony Hesiod names 50 nereids in a virtuoso performance of nearly abstract prosody: Sandy, and charming Salty, and lovely Promontoria, Goodmooringia, Welcome-Wave, Current-Carried etc.How different would our conception of Plato be if he'd come down to us as "Stocky"? //
Not discussed in Davidson's review is the incredible panoply of names in America starting with the extraordinary and singular inclinations of the Puritans. Religious Dissenters (like those who emigrated to New England) took to Old Testament names (whence your Hezekiahs and Mehitabels) or they made them up as they went along (keeping God in mind at all times, of course). If you feel up to wading through it, the jocular Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature (1884) by Charles Waring Endell Bardsley is the place to find out about all those Temperances, Fear-nots, Hope-stills and Preserveds (see above).
The index of names is amazing.
* From the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names: Onomastos ("Named") was a man from Smyrna in modern day Turkey.