The many forms of Rachel

As common as the name is, I’ve always really liked the name Rachel and its various pronunciations. Perhaps one of these alternate forms will strike your fancy, either on its own or if you want to name your baby after a special Rachel but feel held back by its popularity.

In 2016, Rachel was #173 in the U.S., after a very long, impressive run in the Top 100. It entered at #92 in 1968, and continued to both rise and fluctuate until hitting its peak of #9 in 1996. It stayed very popular in the coming years, though its rank steadily dropped. Its final year in the Top 100 was 2010, when it was #99.

Rachel means “ewe” in Hebrew, and, as most people know, was the name of the Patriarch Jakob’s favourite wife. Besides Hebrew, this spelling is also used in English, German, French (where it’s pronounced Rah-SHEL), and Dutch (where the pronunciation is something like Rah-GHEL, with a hard, guttural GH). Other forms include:

1. Rachael is perhaps the most common spelling variation in English, though it’s never been nearly as popular as the traditional Rachel.

2. Ráhel is Hungarian. The base nickname form is Rahi.

3. Rakhil is Russian.

4. Rahela is Serbian and Romanian. I love this form!

5. Raakel is Finnish.

6. Raquel is Spanish, Catalan, Galician, and Portuguese.

7. Rakel is Scandinavian, Icelandic, and Sinhalese.

8. Rachele (Rah-KEH-le) is Italian,

9. Ráichéal is Irish.

10. Rochel is Yiddish.

11. Ruchel is also Yiddish. It all depends upon the dialect. Some regions pronounced A as an O, while others used a U sound.

12. Lahela is Hawaiian.

13. Râché is Jèrriais.

14. Errakel is Basque.

15. Rachela is Polish and a rare Italian variation.

16. Rahil is Medieval Judeo-Arabic.

17. Rāhera is Maori.

18. Râkile is Greenlandic.

19. Rakul is Faroese.

20. Raqel is Armenian.

21. Raheleh is Persian.

22. Raahel is Malayalam, a language spoken in India.

23. Rachil is modern Greek.

24. Raichel is Tamil.

25. Rachelle is French.

26. Rakhila is another Russian form.

27. Raaheel, or Raahil, is Arabic,

28. Raquele is Brazilian–Portuguese.

29. Raquella is a rare Filipino form.

Priapus and Polyxena

Warning: If phallic images in art (beyond regular artistic nudity) offend you, this post isn’t for you.

Priapus (Priapos) is a minor fertility god, and protects livestock, fruit, gardens, bees, merchant sailors, and male genitalia. He’s routinely depicted with a permanent, oversized erection. Indeed, his very name is the origin of the English word “priapism,” an erection lasting over four hours in the absence of sexual activities.

Priapus is variantly described as the son of Aphrodite and Dionysus or Dionysus and Chione, as well as the son of Zeus, Hermes, or Pan. Other sources list him as Hermes’s father. Hera cursed him with ugliness, impotence, and foul-mindedness while he was in utero, in revenge for Prince Paris of Troy having judged Aphrodite as more beautiful than Hera.

The other deities refused to let Priapus live on Mount Olympus, and threw him earthside. He landed on a hill, and was raised by the shepherds who found him. Later, he joined Pan and the satyrs.

Priapus once tried to rape the humble, modest goddess Hestia when she was asleep, but a donkey’s braying made Priapus lose his erection, woke Hestia up, and thwarted the assault. This gave him a burning hatred of donkeys, which became his sacrificial animal.

Another time, he tried to rape the nymph Lotis when she too was asleep, but a donkey’s braying thwarted him yet again. Lotis awoke and ran away, leaving the other deities to laugh at Priapus. In some accounts, the deities turned her into a lotus tree to escape Priapus.

Worship of Priapus was more a rural phenomenon outside of his home region of Lampsakos. People in the countryside saw him as a patron of sailors, agriculture, fishers, and others in need of good luck. His presence was believed to avert the evil eye. In Bithynia (now northwestern Asian Turkey), he was viewed as a tutor to the god Ares in infancy.

People in urban areas saw him as a joke, not a serious deity. In later antiquity, his worship was seen as a cult of sophisticated pornography. Into the Middle Ages, he was invoked as a symbol of fertility and health. In the 13th century, a lay Cistercian brother erected a statue of Priapus to stop an outbreak of cattle disease.

In the 1980s, in Montréal, D.F. Cassidy founded the St. Priapus Church, a predominantly gay male community focused on worship of the phallus. During services, everyone but the priest is naked. (Warning: Link NSFW or under 18!)

Priapus is of unknown etymology. It may be pre-Greek.

The Sacrifice of Polyxena, by Nicolas Prévost

Polyxena (Polyxene) was the youngest daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, and the Trojan version of Iphigenia. An oracle said Troy wouldn’t be defeated if Prince Troilos lived to age twenty. With that in mind, Athena encouraged Achilles to seek him out.

Troilos and Polyxena rode out to get water from a well in the town of Thymbra, and Achilles was overcome with lust for both of them. At this time, Achilles was still in mourning for his dear friend Patroklos, who may or may not have been his lover. Polyxena and Troilos ran away, but Achilles caught Troilos by the hair and dragged him off his horse.

Troilos escaped to a nearby temple of Apollo, but Achilles followed him and beheaded him by the altar, then mutilated Troilos’s body. Achilles continued pursuing Polyxena, and struck up a rapport with her. He found her words comforting in the wake of Patroklos’s death. Achilles trusted her so much, he told her of his only vulnerability, his heel.

Polyxena’s brothers Paris and Delphobos ambushed Achilles and shot him in his heel, with an arrow soaked in poison and guided by Apollo. In some versions, Polyxena kills herself from guilt, while in others, Achilles’s ghost demands the Greeks sacrifice her to appease the wind needed to take them home. Polyxena was eager to die as a sacrifice for such a great hero instead of as a slave. Neoptolemos, Achilles’s son, carried out the sacrifice.

Polyxena means “many foreigners,” “many guests,” or “very hospitable.” It’s derived from polys (many) and xenos (guest, foreigner), or xenia (hospitality to guests). Other forms of the name include Polyxène (French), Polyxeni (modern Greek), Poliksena (Russian and Polish), Polissena (Italian), Políxena (Spanish), Pulisena (Medieval Italian), Polikseni (Albanian), and Poleksija (Serbian). My character Alya (Aleksandra) Minina names her daughter Poliksena, Polya for short, since she’s not exactly the type to use an ordinary name like Natalya or Olga.

Nestor and Nike

Achille Donne à Nestor le Prix de la Sagesse aux Jeux Olympiques, by Joseph-Désiré Court, 1820

Nestor was the King of Pylos, assuming the throne after Hercules killed his father Neleus and all of Nestor’s siblings. He was also one of the Argonauts, fought the Centaurs, and participated in the hunt for the Calydonian Boar. Artemis sent this boar to terrorize Calydon after King Oeneus forgot to include her in the annual harvest sacrifices.

Though Nestor was quite old by the time of the Trojan War, he nevertheless went to fight with the Greeks. In The Iliad, he frequently gives advice to the younger soldiers, and advices Achilles and Agamemnon to make up after their falling-out. Nestor was too old to actually serve in combat, but he led the Pylian troops in a chariot, and had a golden shield.

Nestor’s advice is always respected and taken very seriously, due to his age and experience, but there’s also always a subtext of tongue-in-cheek humour at his expense when he speaks. Nestor always prefaces this sage advice by several paragraphs bragging about his heroic past exploits in similar situations. Much of his advice is also ineffective at best and potentially disastrous at worst.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus’s son Telemachus goes to Pylos to ask Nestor for any word of his father. Nestor truly exemplifies xenia (hospitality), but can’t provide any information. Telemachus then goes to Sparta to talk with Menelaus and Helen, but they don’t know anything either.

Upon his return to Pylos, Telemachus begs Nestor’s youngest son, Peisistratos, to let him go straight home to avoid yet another overwhelming show of xenia. Peisistratos agrees to the request, though he says Nestor will probably be really pissed when he discovers Telemachus has left.

Nestor means “homecoming,” and may also be related to nostimos, “blessed.” This name is also used in Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian. Other forms include Nestore (Italian), Nestori (Finnish), Néstor (Spanish, Galician), Nèstor (Catalan), Nesta (Jamaican Patois), Nestorie (Romanian), Nestório (Portuguese), Nestorio (Spanish, Italian), Nestoriusz (Polish), Nistor (Romanian), Nestoriy (Russian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian), and Nestorije (Serbian and Croatian).

Copyright Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011)

Nike (Roman name Victoria) is the Greek goddess of victory, speed, and strength, and the daughter of Titan Pallas and goddess Styx. She and her siblings, Kratos (god of strength), Bia (goddess of force and raw energy), and Zelos (daimon of zeal, envy, rivalry, emulation, dedication, and jealousy), are very close with Zeus. When Zeus was preparing to go to war against the Titans, Styx brought her kids to him as allies.

Though most Greek deities were no longer depicted with wings by the Classical era, Nike continued to be shown as such. She’s also frequently depicted as a Divine charioteer, flying around battlefields and rewarding the victors with fame and glory. This symbol of victory is the famous crown of laurel leaves. One of the many reasons I chose Dafna (Laurel) as part of my Hebrew name is because of this ancient symbolism.

Statue in Potsdamer Schloßpark, Germany, Copyright Lestat (Jan Mehlich), GFDL, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5

Nike is also very close to Athena, and is believed to have been the broken statue in Athena’s outstretched hand in the Parthenon. Additionally, Nike is one of the figures most often found on Ancient Greek coins.

In the modern era, the sporting company Nike takes their name from the goddess. The Rolls–Royce hood ornament, Spirit of Ecstasy, is modelled after Nike, as is the Honda motorcycle company’s logo. Finally, Nike has been minted on the obverse of every Olympic medal since the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam.

Nike means “victory,” but could also be related to neikos (strife, quarrel) and neikein (to quarrel with). The word itself may have pre-Greek origins. Related names are Nikian, Nikanor, and Nikon (the latter two of which are also used in Russian).

Names to avoid in an Anglophone country

Over the years, I’ve come across names which, let’s be honest, just wouldn’t work in a modern Anglophone country. These names might sound beautiful in their native languages, not even pronounced like they’d be in English, but the spellings or connotations still are what they are. Bullies will find a way to make fun of any name they don’t like, but these names stand out all by themselves.

No offense is intended to people who do have these names! There are plenty of English names which must look or sound funny in other cultures.

1. Semen, the most common Ukrainian form of Simon. I shouldn’t even have to explain why this name is a no-go!

2. Urinboy. I found this while researching my post on Kyrgyz names on my main blog, and at first thought it had to be a joke or vandalism. It really is a legit name.

3. Bích, a female Vietnamese name meaning “bluish-green.” It’s pronounced BEEK, but we all know how everyone will assume it’s pronounced.

4. Dong, a male Chinese name whose meanings include “beam, pillar” and “east.” It’s pronounced DOONG. However, I don’t think the Scottish name Dongal should be avoided. I honestly didn’t realize what the first four letters spell in English until it was pointed out some years after discovering the name.

5. Dũng, a male Vietnamese name meaning “brave.” It’s pronounced like the English word “yum.” If you like the meaning that much, you could use the Chinese and Korean form, Yong, or one of the Japanese forms, Yuu or Isamu.

6. Foka, the Russian form of Phocas/Phokas, which means “a seal” (the animal). I’m not sure where the stress falls, but if it’s on the A, the name would be pronounced Fah-KAH, not FOH-kah.

7. Gaylord. This poor boy would be so bullied.

8. Gay(e). This poor girl would likewise be bullied, though once upon a time, this was a lovely name. We can’t predict how the language will evolve.

9. Osama. I’ve heard this name has been outlawed in some countries, and we can all understand why.

10. Adolf/Adolph. This name is likewise outlawed in many countries with naming laws. If you want to honor a special older relative or friend who was born before the name took on its modern association, what about the original form Adalwolf?

11. Titty. There’s a reason this is no longer a nickname for Letitia!

12. Tit. Pronounced TEET (still awful in English!), this is the Russian form of Titus.

13. Arseman. This was the name of a female character on the early Nineties Nickelodeon show Fifteen, as well as the real-life name of the young lady who played her. Given what “arse” means in the U.K., Ireland, and Australia, this is a no-go!

14. Arsen, a male Armenian name derived from the Greek Arsenios. It sounds like “arson,” and it’s also only two letters shy of “arsenic.” I personally wouldn’t use this name or any of the other forms of it, particularly if I lived in a place where “arse” is the spelling for one’s rear end.

15. Hardman, the Old Germanic form of Hartmann (brave man).

16. Jerker, a Swedish form of Erik. The J is pronounced like a Y, but the spelling in English is what it is. Another form of this name is Jerk.

17. Harm, a Dutch and Frisian nickname for Herman.

18. Violâte, a Jèrriais name which seems to be a form of the Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish Violante, which may in turn be derived from Yolanda. Both Violâte and Violante are too close to the word “violent,” and it’s obvious what Violâte spells in English. The similar-looking Violet, however, has never conveyed that connotation for me.

Are there any other names you’d add to this list?

Ten reasons I love onomastics

While plenty of people only choose names for their children, pets, and characters because they like the sound or think it’s cool, I’ve long been drawn to the history, culture, and etymologies behind names. I tend to choose meaningful names (both forenames and surnames) for my characters. It’s been years since I chose names from lists in the encyclopedia or the old baby names booklet my mother had when she was pregnant with me.

Some of the reasons I love onomastics include, but aren’t limited to:

1. It reminds me of how the world’s languages (Indo–European or otherwise) are more closely linked than many people assume. For example, the Kazakh name Akhat means “one,” which is very similar to the Hebrew word for one, echad. The spelling of the Etruscan name Egnatius was changed to Ignatius to resemble the Latin word ignis, “fire,” which is likewise very similar to the Sanskrit agni.

2. It helps me with learning other languages. If I’m doing a post about names with a certain meaning, I’ll quickly grow to recognise certain elements. The next time I see those elements, in either a name or a word, I’ll know what part of it means. For example, the Persian element Gol- means “flower” or “rose,” and appears as Gul- in many Georgian, Turkic, and Urdu names, while Ay means “Moon” in the Turkic languages.

3. It says so much about the culture and society those names come from. For example, many Slavic names have meanings relating to love and peace, while many Germanic names relate to war. Some languages, like Chinese, modern Hebrew, and Korean, also have many unisex names, instead of names which are traditionally only for one sex or the other.

4. It’s neat to see how a name is adapted into other languages. Not all languages share the same alphabet and sounds, so they have to substitute others. A B in one language could be a V or P in another; a T could be an F; and a W could be a G or Y.

5. I love seeing how other languages form their nicknames!

6. It shows what kinds of cultural osmosis has taken place in certain languages. For example, while Bosnian is a Slavic language, many of its names are of Arabic, Persian, and Turkic origin. Russian likewise has several very old names which are of Norse origin, like Oleg and Igor.

7. It leads me to discovering a love for names from languages I hadn’t paid much attention to before. While looking up names with a certain meaning, I might find some lovely names from a language I was never particularly interested in before, and will start exploring these names more in-depth. I might want to look up a name from a certain language for a character, and discover so many lovely names to choose from.

8. I like seeing what kinds of names were popular in other eras, and how what’s popular has shifted over time. Names that are now widely considered geriatric were once very trendy and fashionable, while other names have stayed consistently popular over many decades. Some names which are now seen as dated may be more popular in other languages, as people try to copy American culture.

9. It’s neat to see what kinds of invented names exist. In English, well-known invented names include Jessica, Pamela, Vanessa, Wendy, and Miranda. Invented Hungarian names include Csilla, Jolánka, Kincső, Enikő, Tímea, and Tünde.

10. It’s also fascinating to see how surnames are most commonly formed. Once you know the most common suffixes, it’s easy to identify someone’s ancestry or ethnic origin based on the surname.