Some thoughts on name-changing after immigration

(Note: I’ll be further discussing some of these issues on my main blog in upcoming posts, “A Primer on Anglicizing Names” and “A Primer on De-Judaizing Names.” I also previously discussed the issue of Hebraizing names on my main blog.)

Though most immigrants in the modern era proudly retain their birth names, that wasn’t always the case. Many people felt they had to change their names (first, last, or both) to become “real” Americans, Canadians, Brits, Australians, Israelis, French, etc. By and large, no one questioned this.

Now we know there’s no one “right” way to be a proud, patriotic member of one’s adopted homeland. By trying to whitewash themselves and pretend they never had any other names and ways of life, people lost vital parts of their heritage and identity.

Changing spelling to reflect pronunciation:

I understand why people would want to do this. Certain letters make different sounds in, e.g., English than they do in the native language. For example, the Hungarian surname Kovács might become Kovach, or the Polish surname Adamczak became Adamchak.

Many Hungarian women named Sára (nickname Sári) have likewise changed their names to Shara or Shari, since most non-Magyarphiles don’t know the Hungarian S is pronounced SH.

Many people gave up the idea of anyone properly pronouncing, e.g., W as V, and accepted a linguistically incorrect pronunciation of a name like Janowski or Korošec.

Removing diacritical marks:

This was extraordinarily common, esp. since many people would’ve had no idea how to pronounce characters like Ń, Ž, Č, Ł, Ę, Ñ, Ü, Ø, or Ő. Even if the diacritical mark makes the difference in correct vs. incorrect pronunciation, most people even now see them as a hindrance or annoyance.

Pedant I am, I like seeing diacritical marks in names of foreign origin. It sets the bearer apart, sends the message that s/he cares about his or her ethnic heritage and doesn’t believe in taking the easy way out. A name like Ramón, Yaël, Léa, Gwenaël, Kálmán, or Irène looks so distinctive.

Changing spelling to conform to host nation’s “norms”:

Examples would include the Hungarian Jakab becoming Jacob, Izabella becoming Isabella, the Estonian Eliisabet becoming Elizabeth, or the Polish Zofia becoming Sophia. Before people were used to seeing certain letters or sounds in names, they would’ve stood out like a sore thumb. But today, those native spellings really stand out beautifully from the crowd.

Many Russians and Ukrainians with -skiy names also changed that suffix to -sky, to simplify the spelling. Sometimes, Poles changed -ski to -sky. If they lived in a region with a lot of people of Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, or Slovak descent, it helped them to blend in better.

Dropping sex-based endings of surnames:

Many names in the Slavic languages denote the sex of the bearer. Russian women’s names end in -a after -ov, -(y)ev, or -in, and -skiy becomes -skaya. Likewise, Polish women’s names end in -ska instead of -ski, and Czech women’s names tack on -ová. In Slovak and Czech, -ský becomes -ská.

It just looks wrong to me to see a beautiful Russian or Polish surname without the feminine ending when the bearer is a woman. It’s grammatically incorrect for a woman to have a name like Jaskolski, Kuznetsov, or Borodin.

“Translating” names to that of the host culture:

It wasn’t uncommon for, e.g., Pavlos or Pavel to become Paul, Katarina or Katarzyna to become Catherine, or Ryszard to become Richard. Even a name like Caterina or Nikolay was considered “too foreign” once upon a time.

Surnames could be “translated” too, such as Schmidt becoming Smith or Molnár becoming Miller. Anything suggesting foreign origin was seen as undesirable and suspect.

This frequently happened when people made aliyah (moved to Israel), as discussed in the above-hyperlinked “A Primer on Hebraizing Names.” Many common Jewish surnames were translated into Hebrew, such as Bergman becoming Harari and Rosen becoming Vardi. Those birth surnames smacked of a people without their own country and language.

Choosing entirely new names:

The name Irving was once quite popular among the Jewish community, as an “American” substitute for Isaac, Israel, and Isaiah. Many of the new names chosen have dated rather poorly, though at the time, they were seen as “all-American” and a part of the mainstream onomastic culture.

Shortening names or putting Anglo twists on them:

This happened both for Anglicization in general and de-Judaization in particular. For example, Garfinkel became Garfield, Rosenkrantz became Rose, Nielsen became Nelson, Feuerstein became Firestone, de Jong became DeYoung, Eisenhauer became Eisenhower.

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I’m glad more people now see the beauty in names from a wide variety of cultures, instead of seeing them as an ugly, embarrassing, foreign burden to be shed. Not everyone needs to have names like John and Mary Smith, just as not everyone has to abandon native cuisine, culture, language (as long as one learns the host language), and religion.

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Pearly names (including the many forms of Margaret)

Pearl used to be quite a popular name in the U.S. In 1880, it was #47, and it remained in the Top 100 until 1926. Its highest rank was #24, in 1889, 1890, and 1900. It sank lower and lower, until it fell off the charts in 1977, In 1979, it returned, but fell off again in 1987. It returned briefly in 2007, and then returned yet again in 2009. In 2016, it was #567, and has been pulling up quite a bit in rank each year.

Margaret means “pearl,” from the Greek margarites, which in turn is probably ultimately derived from the Sanskrit manyari. Historically, the name has been enormously popular. From 1880–1930 alone, it was in the Top 5, and it was Top 10 from 1931–39. It was Top 20 from 1940–51, and then gradually began sinking. In 1976, it left the Top 100, though it returned from 1982–89. In 2016, it was #139.

Here, then, are both the many forms of Margaret and names whose meanings relate to the word “pearl.”

Unisex:

Alnilam means “string of pearls” in Arabic. This is the name of one of the stars in Orion.

Dar means “mother-of-pearl” in Hawaiian.

Durdana is Arabic and Urdu.

Hae-Ju can mean “ocean pearl” in Korean.

Hyeon-Ju, or Ju-Hyeon, can mean “virtuous/worthy/able pearl” in Korean.

Poema means “pearl of the deep seas” in Tahitian.

Yao can mean “mother-of-pearl” in Chinese.

Yong-Ju can mean “dragon pearl” in Korean.

Female:

Bermet is Kyrgyz.

Bisera is Bulgarian and Macedonian.

Bitxilore is Basque.

Châu is Vietnamese.

Darya means “pearl of God” in Hebrew. This isn’t to be confused with the Persian or Russian name. All three have different etymologies.

Dordana is Urdu.

Durar means “pearls” in Arabic.

Durdona is Uzbek.

Durrah is a rare Arabic name meaning “large pearl.”

Enku is Amharic.

Gohar is Persian.

Gyöngyi is Hungarian. The letter GY is sort of pronounced like a soft, quick D followed by a Y, the way people in certain parts of the English-speaking world pronounce the first syllable of “due” and “during.”

Gyöngyvér means “sister of pearl” in Hungarian.

Gyöngyvirág means “pearl flower” in Hungarian, and refers to the lily-of-the-valley.

Helmi is Finnish.

Hessa is Arabic.

Inci is Turkish.

Inju is Kazakh.

Inthurat is Thai.

Jinju is Korean.

Jua can mean “second pearl,” “apricot pearl,” or “Asia pearl” in Japanese.

Jumana is Arabic.

Krõõt is Estonian.

Leimoni means “pearl lei” or “pearl child” in Hawaiian.

Lulu is Arabic, and not to be confused with the (mostly) English and German nickname.

Maarit is Finnish.

Maighread is Scottish. The nickname is Maisie.

Mairéad is Irish. Without an accent mark, this is also a Scottish variation.

Makaleka is Hawaiian.

Mākere is Maori.

Makereta is Fijian.

Malghalara is Pashto.

Małgorzata is Polish, with the nicknames Marzena, Gosia, and Małgosia.

Marc’harid is Breton.

Maret is Estonian.

Margaid is Manx.

Margalit, or Margalita, is Hebrew.

Margareeta is Finnish.

Margareta is German, Scandinavian, Romanian, Slovenian, Dutch, Finnish, and Croatian. The variation Margaréta is Slovak and Hungarian. German nicknames include Greta, Grete, Gretchen, Gretel, and Meta; Swedish nicknames are Meta, Märta, and Greta; Norwegian nicknames are Mette, Meta, Grete, and Grethe; Danish nicknames are Merete, Mette, Meta, Grethe, and Grete; Dutch nicknames are Griet, Greet, Grietje, and Greetje; and Finnish nicknames include Reeta and Reetta.

Margarete is German.

Margaretha is Dutch and German.

Margarethe is German and Danish.

Margareto is Esperanto.

Margaretta is an English variation.

Margarida is Catalan, Portuguese, Occitan, and Galician.

Margarit, Markarid, or Margarid, is Armenian.

Margarita is Russian, Bulgarian, Spanish, Scandinavian, Greek, and Lithuanian.

Marged is Welsh, with the nickname Mared.

Margherita is Italian.

Margit is Hungarian, German, Estonian, and Scandinavian.

Margita is Slovak.

Margreet is Limburgish and Dutch.

Margrét is Icelandic. The nickname is Gréta.

Margrethe is Norwegian and Danish.

Margriet is Dutch.

Margrieta is Latvian and Dutch.

Margrit is German.

Marguerite is French. Nicknames include Margaux and Margot.

Marharyta is Ukrainian.

Marhata is Sorbian.

Marit, or Marita, is Norwegian and Swedish.

Marjan is Kazakh.

Marjeta is Slovenian.

MarjorieMargery, or Marjory, is Medieval English.

Markéta is Czech and Slovak.

Marketta is Finnish.

Mèrdgitte is Jèrriais.

Mererid is Welsh.

Merit is Swedish.

Momi is Hawaiian.

Momilani means “heavenly pearl,” “royal pearl,” “noble pearl,” and “spiritual pearl” in Hawaiian.

Morî is Kurdish.

Morvarid is Persian.

Mukda is Thai.

Penina is Hebrew.

Perla is Italian and Spanish.

Perle is French and Yiddish.

Perlezenn is Breton.

Poerani means “divine pearl” or “heavenly pearl” in Tahitian.

Poerava means “black pearl” in Tahitian.

Retha is Afrikaans.

Sadaf means “mother-of-pearl, seashell” in Arabic.

Sadap means “mother-of-pearl” in Turkmeni.

Shinju is Japanese.

Male:

Akinci means “white pearl” in Turkish.

Akincibay means “white pearl lord” in Turkish.

Xhevahir means “pearl, jewel, diamond, gem, precious stone” in Albanian. XH is pronounced like the J in Jupiter.

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).