James Davidson, a classicist of wide-ranging interests, frequently writes for the LRB, and last October he had a long review of a book that would normally get covered in a brisk paragraph or two in the TLS (“…worthy continuation of a valuable series… a few minor lapses should be noted…”), A Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, Vol. V.A Coastal Asia Minor: Pontos to Ionia, edited by T. Corsten (Oxford, 496 pp, £125.00). Mind you, he doesn’t actually get around to Greek names until the halfway point, and doesn’t get to the book being reviewed until perhaps the three-quarter mark, but a detailed review of Coastal Asia Minor: Pontos to Ionia is not really the LRB’s remit. The whole thing is a mine of informative and delightful tidbits; I’ll quote a few to whet your appetite:
It is even possible to trace the rise of particular combinations of sounds. The popularity of J-names for boys in English-speaking countries is very ancient. A more recent trend is for names that end in -an or -en. This may be enough to account for the meteoric rise on both sides of the Atlantic of Jayden, coming soon to a playground near you, a lovely sounding name, without history or significance, which first entered the US top 1000 only in 1994. Or perhaps the -en sound has become a masculinising suffix, so that Jayden is a male form of Jade. An ‘ee’ sound has also become dominant in the top ten of girls’ names, assisting the revival of Ruby, Lily, Chloe and Sophie/Sophia – which currently enjoys remarkable popularity all over the world, from Russia to Argentina and from Germany to New Zealand. …
This fluidity is enabled by a traditional freedom in naming. The Rev. Easther noted – merely as a curiosity – that already in early 19th-century Yorkshire, children were being baptised with diminutives: Fred, Ben, Willie, Joe, Tom. Everywhere, some names could be given to both girls and boys – Hilary, Evelyn, Lesley, Happy, Providence – and the practice of using surnames as forenames was well established. Particular groups have periodically used this customary licence to bestow unusual names. Thus the sloganeering names of Nonconformists: Freewill Shepherd, Praisegod Silkes, Feargod Hodge, River Jordan and, reputedly, Unless-Jesus-Christ-Had-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barbon, whose father, Praise-God Barebone, lent his surname to the Barebones Parliament of the mid-17th century. An American dialectologist noted that in the southern Appalachians in the early 20th century,
One girl was named Vest for no other reason than that her father wrapped her in his vest when she was only a week old and carried her proudly across the hollow to display his first-born before admiring neighbours … Three brothers in the little settlement of Shawnee bear the names Meek, Bent and Wild. Lem and Lum are the names of twins. One young man carried the substantial name of Anvil, and another that of Whetstone. A small mountain boy has Speed as his Christian name.
Until very recently, most European countries fiercely resisted such typically English laissez-faire. You could not use surnames as forenames; you could not register diminutives; names must be taken from the calendar of saints or the otherwise illustrious of the nation’s past; names must be either masculine or feminine, but not both; names had to be given in the correct form of an official language. So, while Friday has occasionally been used as a forename in England and America for several centuries, when, in 2006, an Italian couple wanted to name their child Venerdì, a judge refused and took it on himself to rename the boy Gregorio; the name Friday carried negative, potentially damaging, connotations, he argued, citing Robinson Crusoe, Friday the 13th and the Crucifixion. Some countries, notably Germany, Sweden and Denmark, maintain approved lists, cared for in the last case by academic specialists at the University of Copenhagen, and parents must go through a special and sometimes expensive appeals procedure if they wish to name their child something off-piste.
However, licence is spreading rapidly. The number of appeals against the name-lists has increased rapidly in recent years and threatens to overwhelm the system, causing even Hans, Jens and Jørgen to wonder if this might not be a waste of government time and taxpayers’ money. Recently, the Danes have allowed Christopher and Swedish courts have allowed Google, Metallica and Q, though not Albin spelled Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssql-bb11116 in a vain attempt to test the law; even the laid-back English registrars insist a name must be readable and contain no numbers; it should also contain no titles, which leads one to wonder how Princess Tiaamii passed.
Now, here I (tentatively and deferentially) take issue with him:
An interesting case is the name Alexander. It looks very much as if it is a typically Greek dithematic compound of alex (‘defend’) and andr (‘man’). In the Iliad it is an alternative name for Paris, prince of Troy. There was therefore some excitement in the 1920s when a long Hittite document was found to be a treaty between a Hittite king and one Alaksandu lord of Wilusa – now almost universally accepted as the Hittite name for Ilion/Troy. Alexander could therefore be an example of a foreign Anatolian name being Hellenised into Greek-sounding syllables or, just as intriguingly and rather more probably, a 13th-century BC Greek (or Greek-named) ‘Alexander’, Hitticised as Alaksandu, a name that would be the 17th most popular in the far distant British Isles in 2010, approximately 3300 years later.
How can he say “rather more probably” about names from over three thousand years ago, given in circumstances totally unknown to us? The reverse has always seemed probable to me, that an Anatolian name Alaksandu got Hellenized and eggcornized to Alexandros. But we’ll never know. Anyway, here’s a bit on the actual book being reviewed:
In this region, somewhat unusually, the most popular name, by far, was Apollonius, pushing Dionysius into second place; Demetrius is in third place and Artemidorus fourth. Alexander is in fifth place, with two examples from little Ilium, seat of prehistoric Alaksandu. The region seems even more fond of god-names than elsewhere, and some of them throw interesting light on local cults. The popularity of Apollonius and Artemidorus shows the importance of Apollo to the Ionians and of the great shrine of Artemis in Ephesus. The importance of Cybele, the local Mountain Mother, and the Phrygian moon-god Mēn is reflected in the frequency of the names Metrodorus (sixth most popular) and Menodorus. Greeks generally avoided names associated with underworld divinities such as Hades and Persephone, so the popularity of Hecate-names, including ‘Gift of Hecate’ Hecatodorus, confirms other evidence that the goddess of witchcraft had a more benign aspect in this part of the Greek world.
Even the most popular name, Apollonius, was shared by barely 2.5 per cent of the population, while the top ten male names accounted for about 15 per cent, the top ten female names for about 12 per cent; most of the top ten female names are Lallnamen (‘baby-babble’): Ammia, Tatia, Apphia. But there are also virtue-names such as Virtue (Arete), Justice and Peace (Irene). Well over half the names are attested only once in the region. These include a Sappho, an Ophelia, a Stephane, a Priam (from Pergamum), a Boar, a Quail, a Sparrow, a Foam, a Pebble (or Vote) and an Amazon, an Encolpius (whose father may or may not have read Petronius’ Satyricon), a Wonderful (or Miraculous: Thaumasios) and a Shitty (Copreus) of Teos, an Old Woman (Graus), who is male, and a man named Named (Onomastos) from Smyrna, a Ioseph, a Samouel, a Nigella, an Aemilia, a Martin, a Loukipher and a Christopher.
The online version has appended a very interesting letter from Stephen Oren of Chicago about a possible a connection “between James Davidson’s observation, in his review of the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, that the name Jesus/Joshua is missing among Greek personal names ‘in all regions’ and David Nirenberg’s statement in the same issue that Moshe/Moses was an unusual name for Maimonides.” And the twins Lem and Lum reminded me of the brilliant poem at the end of this post by The Growling Wolf:
On a Frostly Snowly Dawn
by Elmer Snowedin, The Daily Growler Poet Laureate
Snooding, grumpy, porcupinish Lum limping sledlike
to plough towards his fainting light, that held high by his
crying wife on a porch that is swaying as the snow dumps
itself blindingly between the man who’d gone a’fore and now
is coming back the vision of a holy ghost
on a snowy white apparitional steed unleashed from
God’s open refrigerator door…yes, there is a light in Heaven.
I’ve been muttering “Snooding, grumpy, porcupinish Lum” to myself ever since I read it.
Addendum. I forgot to mention the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names website, which is well worth checking out.