Thursday, November 4, 2010

Thoughts About Names

What's in a name? We give and use names. We create nicknames. We continue to have our names reflect patronymics created from naming systems other than American. For instance, we have a lot of Swensons, Petersons, Olsons, names derived from fathers whose names were something like Swen, Peter or Ole.

My grandfather was Edward; my father was Ed; my brother is Eddy; my nephew is Danny; all were named Edward. Nicknames abound. My other brother's teenage nickname was and is Fud; many people call him Dave; his given name is David. (How he became Fud is a different story.) My husband was Rick; his parents named him Richard. My nickname is Kathy; my real name is Kathleen.

This brings me to the point. This is my special ego trip. I became curious about the name Kathleen, and discovered that two nations claim the name. My dictionary (Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th ed.) says it is Irish. WikiName says it is English. I had no idea I was that popular. Both sources give plenty of related names, English, Irish and other national variants: Catharine, Caterina, Ekaterina, Karen, Catalina, Catarina. The dictionary hit for Kathleen refers readers to the listing for Catherine.

Of course, the best part of Kathleen is the company I keep. Who could not love Catherine of Aragon, wife of Henry VIII of England, even though the king did away with her as wife #1. One of John F. Kennedy's sisters was named Kathleen. St. Catherine of Sienna continues to be much loved; I seem to remember that she hardly ever ate. Kathleen Turner is a well known actress. Catherine the Great was Empress of Russia.

How wonderful! Two communities in the United States have my name. They are Kathleen, Georgia, and Kathleen, Florida. I remember the pop song of about fifty years ago, "Kathaleen, oh my lovin' darling Kathaleen..."

Lest you think I stopped with my own name, I didn't. I also researched some very well known names from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Names carried significance. For these people of earlier times, the name of a person, place or thing was in some way connected to the essence or personality of him/her/it. The names of individual persons expressed personality and status or nature. To call a person by name was to engage with that person's inner and outer being. I don't think we can say that about the names we give to people today in the United States.

Here are a few names from the Bible, with no comments on the issue of literal/historical truth of the scriptures.
Adam: human being, translated "man." It is the proper name for the first man, and some suggested that it means "ruddy" or "earth."
Eve: "the mother of all living."
Eden: means "delight," is a garden of God.
Abraham: "father of many," a name ritually changed from Abram.
Jacob: "seizing the heel of." Jacob and his brother were twins, with Jacob being born at the heel of Esau. The name "Israel" was given to him after he wrestled with God; it means "he contended with God."
Jesus. "he will save."
(Thanks to The Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. Oxford University Press, 1993.)