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Friday, July 19, 2024

Whose name is it anyway?

As a result of a discussion with my friends this weekend about names, I’ve been thinking about names and what they mean lately. Consequently, this column will be a limited dissection of the names of some people you may have heard of. To keep the investigation as honest as possible, I looked only at etymology and commonly held interpretations of names. I visited the helpful ancestry.com, cross-referenced with other websites, and even delved into the labyrinthine depths of genealogical forums.

In light of the recent Democratic National Convention, let’s begin with…

Barack Obama! Turns out neither “Barack” nor “Obama” are terribly common names. However, it would appear that “Barack” is a derivation of “Barak,” which means “blessing” in Arabic. Well, that’s one opinion! According to another website, Barak means “lightning” in Hebrew, which I have to say, sounds much cooler. Lightning Obama. Think about it.

It seems only fair that if we examine Lightning Obama, we take a look at John McCain. “John” is a fairly common name, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you knew that, translated from the original Hebrew, it means “God is gracious.” I would be surprised if you knew it had also been the name of 21 popes. Exciting!

I decided to start calling Gavin Newsom “White Hawk of the New Houses” until I realized the only people who would understand the reference were people into genealogy and this column. “Gavin” is the medieval form of “Gawain”, which comes from the Welsh “Gwalchgwyn,” which means “White hawk.” His surname can be translated from Old English (“neowan husum”) to mean “[of the] new houses.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s name took some serious research to determine a meaning. I found three likely explanations for his last name and I’ll let you decide which one you like best. Some contend that since Schwarz means “black” (alternately devil) and Egger means “descendant of Eckardt,” his name should mean “black son of Eckardt” (or something). Others contend (vociferously, I might add), that it probably is a toponymic, meaning that his family probably originated from somewhere named Schwarzenegg. There is, apparently, such a farm on the outskirts of Austria. Another contingent of… people that debate this obscure topic point out that an “egge” is a kind of harrow, the last name should mean “black plowman.” Incidentally, Arnold can be translated to mean “eagle power.”

Speaking of toponymy, Kobe Bryant gets his name from Kobe, Japan; rumor has it that his parents saw “Kobe beef” on a menu and were inspired. I suppose culinary nomenclature for the Laker star should be no surprise given his father’s nickname (“Jellybean”).

UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef has an interesting first name. Larry is short for Laurence or Lawrence (which is apparently a derivation of Laurence anyway). Laurence is the French form of Laurentius, a Latin name meaning “man from Laurentum.” The name Laurence gained popularity around 300 BC after the exploits of Saint Laurence, who was martyred in 258 BC. One of the seven deacons of Rome, Laurence was asked by the prefect of Rome to produce the treasures of the Church. When finally called before the prefect, Laurence produced the poor, crippled, blind and deaf, and according to Church records, declared to the prefect that “the Church is truly far richer than your emperor.” What a nice guy! One hopes that our chancellor, who will be stepping down after this centennial year for UC Davis, meets a better end than Saint Laurence (who was roasted alive).

Natalie Portman also has links to a saint (popular folks, I guess). Natalie comes from the Latin “Natalia” (which itself comes from “natalis”). The name Natalie became popular after the exploits of Saint Natalie. Natalie, a Moorish woman, was originally named Sabigotho, and took the name Natalie after she married Aurelius (also a saint). They were both beheaded for practicing their religion in public with a monk from Jerusalem named George. Ouch. “Portman” appears to be Dutch, Old English and German. Or one of them. All three languages have some rough translation wherein it means “gatekeeper” or “one who keeps the gate” or “gatedude.” Apparently her real last name is Hershlag. Whatever. She can keep my gate any day. I would encourage all of you to do some research into your names; you can find out some pretty interesting facts.

And who knows, your name could mean “dinosaur wizard.”


RICHARD PROCTER welcomes any and all e-mails from professors, researchers or general etymology enthusiasts who wish to correct him on anything in this column. Send such communiqués to rhprocter@ucdavis.edu.



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