1902 Encyclopedia > Names


Names, and the study of proper names of persons and places, are not without scientific and historical importance, but, on the whole, are perhaps rather matter of curious interest. It stands to reason that, even in the earliest societies of "articulate speaking men," all known persons, places, and groups of human beings must have had names by which they could be spoken of and by which they were recognized. The study of these names and of their survival in civilization enables us in some cases to ascertain what peoples inhabited districts now tenanted by persons of far different speech. Thus the names of mountains and rivers in many parts of England are Celtic,-for example, to take familiar instance, Usk, Esk, and Avon. There are also local names (such as Mona, Monmouth, Mynwy, and others) which seem to be relics of tribes even older than the Celtic stocks, and "vestiges of non-Aryan people, whom the Celts found in possession both on the Continent and in the British Isles. These are affairs of somewhat dubious conjecture, but it is certain enough that the Celtic names, with their mysterious and romantic sounds, do linger in English valleys like the last echoes of Arthur’s horn among the hollows of the hills. And it is no less certain that the English name is sometimes the mere translation, perhaps unconscious, of the earlier Celtic appellation, often added to the more ancient word. Penpole Point in Somerset is an obvious example of this redoubling of names. As to the meaning and nature of ancient local names, they are a rule purely descriptive. A river is called by some word which merely signifies "the water"; a hill has a name which means no more than ‘the point," "the peak," "the castle." Celtic names are often of a more romantic tone, as Ardnamurchan, "the promontory by the great ocean," an admirable description of the bold and steep headland which breasts the wash of the Atlantic. As a general rule the surviving Celtic names, chiefly in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, all contain some wide meaning of poetic appropriateness. The English names, on the other hand, commonly state some very simple fact, and very frequently do no more than denote property, such and such a town or hamlet, "ton" or "ham," is the property of the Billings, uffings, Tootings, or whoever the early English settlers in the district may have been. The same attachment to the idea of property is exhibited in even the local names of petty fields in English parishes. Occasionally one finds a bit of half humorous description, as when a sour, starved, and weedy plot is named "starvacre"; but more usually fields are known as "Thompson’s great field," "Smith’s small field," "the fouracre," or the like. The name of some farmer or peasant owner or squatter of ancient date survives for centuries, attached to what was once his property. Thus science of local names has a double historical value. The names indicate the various races (Celtic, Roman, and English in Great Britain) who have set in the form of names the deal of their possession on the soil. Again, the meanings of the names illustrate the characters of the various races. The Romans have left us names connected with camps (castra, chesters) and military roads; the English have used simple descriptions of the baldest kind, or have exhibited their attachment to the idea of property; the Celtic names (like those which the red men have left in America, or the blacks in Australia) are musical with poetic fancy, and filled with interest in the aspects and the sentiment of nature. Our race caries with it the ancient names of an older people into every continent, and titles perhaps originally given to places in the British Isles by men who had not yet learned to polish their weapons of flint may now be found in Australia, America, Africa, and the islands of the furthest seas.

Local names were originally imposed in a handy local manner. The settler or the group of cave-men styled the neighboring river "the water," the neighboring hill "the peak," and these terms often still survive in relics of tongues which can only be construed by the learned. The history of personal names is longer and more complex, but proceeds from beginnings almost as simple. But in personal names the complexity of human character, and the gradual processes of tangling and disentangling the threads of varied human interest, soon come in, and personal names are not imposed once and for all. each man in very early societies may have many names, in different characters and different periods of his life. The oldest personal names which we need examine here are the names which indicate, not an individual, but a group, held together by the conscious sense or less conscious sentiment of kindred, or banded together for reasons of convenience. An examination of customs prevalent among the most widely separated races of Asia, Africa, Australia, and America proves that groups conceiving themselves to be originally of the same kin are generally styled by the name of some animal or other object (animate) or inanimate) from which they claim descent. This object is known as the "totem," from the Red-Indian word dodhaim. Of this topic it must here suffice to say that the earliest and most widely spread class and family names among uncivilized people are totemistic. The groups of supposed kin, however widely scattered in local distribution, are known as wolves, bears, turtles, suns, moons, cockatoos, reeds, and what not, according as each group claims descent from this or that stock, and wears a badge representing this or that animal, plant, or natural object. Unmistakable traces of the same habit of naming exist among Semitic and Teutonic races, and even among Greeks and Romans. The origin of this class of names cannot well be investigated in this place, but it may be observed that the names chosen are commonly those of objects which can be easily drawn in a rude yet recognizable way, and easily expressed in the language of gesture. In addition to the totem names (which indicate, in each example, supposed blood-kindred), local aggregates of men received local names. We hear of the "hill-men," "the cave-men," "the bush-men," "the coast-men," the "men of the plain," precisely as in the old Attic divisions of Aktaioi, Pediaioi, and so forth. When a tribe comes to recognize its own unity, as a rule it calls itself by some term meaning simply "the men," all other tribes being regarded as barbarous or inferior. Probably other neighboring tribes also call themselves "the men" in another dialect or language, while the people in the neighborhood are known by an opprobrious epiphet, as Rakshasas among the early Aryan dwellers in India, or Eskimo (raw-eaters0 in the far north of the America continent.

Leaving tribal for personal names, we find that, among most uncivilized races, a name (derived from some incident or natural object) is given at the time of birth by the parents of each new-born infant. Occasionally the name is imposed before the child is born, and the proud parents call themselves father and mother of such an one before the expected infant sees the light. In most cases the name (the earliest name) denotes some phenomenon of nature; thus Dohbrizhofer met in the forests a young man styled "Gold flower of day," that is, "dawn," his father having been named "Sun." Similar names are commonly given by the natives of Australia, while no names are more common among North-American Indians than those derived from sun, moon, cloud, and wind. This simple historical fact is very damaging to the mythological theories which resolve into solar or elemental myths all legends where the names of the characters can be philologically twisted into descriptions of natural phenomena. It is concluded that these myths originally described incidents in the life of clouds, winds, and tides, whereas names like those on which the theory depends are commonly applied by savage peoples to ordinary human beings. Marshal Saxe was not the sun because his mistress was named "Aurore," and Cephalus and Procris were real person to those who heard their story, although by a series of logical jumps their names may be interpreted as synonyms of the sun and the dew.

The names of savage persons are not permanent. The name first given is ordinarily changed (at the ceremony answering to confirmation in church) for some more appropriate and descriptive nickname, and that, again, is apt to be superseded by various "honor-giving names" derived from various exploits. The common superstition against being "named" has probably produced the custom by which each individual is addressed, when possible, by some wide term of kinship – "brother," "father," and the like. The bad luck which in Zulu customs as in Vedic myths attends the utterance of the real name is evaded by this system of addresses. Could we get a savage-an Iroquois, for example – to explain his titles, we would find that he is say, "Morning Cloud" (by birth-name), "Hungry Wolf" (by confirmation name), "He that raises the white fellow’s scalp" (by honor-giving name), of the Crane totem (by family and hereditary name, as understood by ourselves). When society grows so permanent that male kinship and paternity are recognized, the custom of patronymics is introduced. The totem name gives place to a gentile name, itself probably a patronymic in form; or, as in Greece, the gentile name gives place to a local name, derived from the deme. Thus a Roman is called Caius; Julius is his gentile name (of the Julian clan); Caesar is a kind of hereditary nickname. A Greek is Thucydides (the name usually derived from the grandfather), the son of Olorus, of the deme of Halimusia.

This system of names answered the purposes of Greek and Roman civilization. In Europe, among the Teutonic races, the stock-names (probably totemistic in origin) survive in English local names, which speak of the "ton" or "ham" of the Billings or Tootings. An examination of these names, as collected in Kemble’s Anglo-Saxons, proves that they were originally derived, as a rule, from animals and plants. Our English ancestors had for personal names compound words, as "Noble Wolf" (Ethelwulf), "Wolf of War," and so forth, and these names certainly testify to a somewhat primitive and fierce stage of society. Then came more vulgar nicknames and personal descriptions, as "Long," "Brown," "White," and so forth. Other names are directly derived from the occupation or craft (Smith, Fowler, Sadler) of the man to whom they were given, and yet other names were derived from places. The noble and landowner was called "of" such and such a place (the German von, and French de) while the humbler man was called not "of" but "at" such a place, as in the name "Attewell," or merely by the local name without the particle. If we add to these patronymics formed by the addition of "son," and terms derived from Biblical characters (the latter adopted after the Reformation as a reaction against the names of saints in the calendar(, we have almost exhausted the sources of modern English and European names. A continual development of custom can be traced, and the analysis of any man’s family and Christian names will lead us beyond history into the manners or races devoid of literary records ( A. L.)

The above article was written by: Andrew Lang.

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