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.


  1. Here are some more eccentric names.

  2. Some time ago (Dec 7/14 1998, I discover by a little searching), The New Yorker ran a profile of the cartoonist George Booth, who grew up in rural Missouri. He tells that he had two great-uncles, brothers, who went by the names Aut Orie and Orie Aut. He goes on to report: “my Uncle Ray told me he had once asked their father, whose name was Jefferson, why he named the two boys like that, and Jefferson said, ‘So I don’t get them mixed up.'”

  3. I’m no Anatolian, but I think the point about Alaksandu is that the name has no Hittite etymology, while Alexandros would be an unremarkable native Greek name in both form and meaning.

  4. rootlesscosmo says

    porcupinish Lum
    Thanks to a recent post, we’re all well started on a Russian translation of this.

  5. Oops, I meant Anatolianist. Though I’m no Anatolian, either.

  6. I often reflect on my own name, which is worldwide and throughout history one of the most wildly popular (perhaps only following Muhammad). Oddly, though, in many years of schooling I was in a class with another John only three times. Although of Hebrew origin (< Yokhanan ‘grace/mercy of YH’), it is so strongly associated with Christianity that Jews almost never bear it, yet the associated name Jonathan < Yonatan ‘gift of YH’, though it can be borne by both Jews and Christians, is probably more Jewish. Such are the accidents of history.
    Turning to names related in a different sense, Luke is Greek ‘from Lucania’, and is also strongly Christian; Matthew is Hebrew < Matityahu, also ‘gift of YH’; and Mark is of course Latin and has the name of the pagan god Mars in it! These last two are borne by both Christians and Jews. Luke is by far the rarest of the three, for no apparent reason.
    And speaking of Marcus: poor Romans, almost no given names at allses. The men had so few different names that most were abbreviated uniquely to an initial, and many of them are just birth-order numbers at that (Tertius, Quartus, Quintus, Sextus, Septimus, … Postumus). As for the women, their official names were simply the names of their clans in the feminine gender (Claudia, Caelia, Julia, Lucretia, Verginia, just to mention a few that have survived), causing great confusion in telling one from another in official records. Not for them the rich flexibility of being named Sheniece and Latrice (both with final stress) like twin friends of my daughter’s.

  7. Unisex names are an interesting thing. English androgynous names like Hilary, Evelyn, etc., have I think mostly either fallen out of fashion or become confined to one sex, usually female. But in Israel, unisex names, which were almost unknown a few decades ago, have become so fashionable that I’m constantly being surprised to hear of a name that I think of as strictly masculine being given to a girl (though not, I think, the other way around). Including my own: there are now female Toms in Israel, which is actually not unreasonable given that tom is a Hebrew word meaning ‘innocence’, stereotypically a feminine quality.
    I wonder if there’s a general pattern where male names first become unisex names, and then get restricted to females.

  8. In Germany one of The Rules for names is that the name must be recognizable as either male or female. So “Noa” is not okay, but “Noah” is.

  9. I think the point about Alaksandu is that the name has no Hittite etymology, while Alexandros would be an unremarkable native Greek name in both form and meaning.
    Maybe that’s his reasoning, but Alaksandu wasn’t a Hittite, he was making a treaty with the Hittites, and we know so little about the languages spoken in Anatolia back then (aside from Hittite) that it’s hard to see that as a very convincing argument.

  10. My college roommate Jonathan had no objection to being called Jon as long as people knew that it was a totally different name from John. He briefly experimented with spelling it Jon’n.

  11. Recently, the Danes have allowed Christopher

    “Cristhopher” has always been a valid name. As has “Kristoffer” or even “Christoffer”.
    What was at issue was the mother’s wish to call her son “Christophpher” with double-ph. That was considered a name that would be of inconvenience to the kid as he grew up, hence the imposition (which was eventually lifted).

  12. LH, this reminds me that I was meaning to ask for your help with learning the origin of a strange-seeming name. Apparently there was a Mohegan chief called Mahomet Weyonomon who travelled to England in 1735 to ask George II for his tribe’s land back (I have written about his memorial at Southwark Cathedral here). I was trying to figure out why he was called Mahomet — did his tribe somehow have contact with Muslims, or was this a native Mohegan name that coincidentally resembled a variant spelling of Muhammad? I did look at the dictionary at moheganlanguage.com, but it seems to be an agglutinative language, and I don’t know what the stem of the word would be. Also, of course, the spelling system used now might be completely different. Do you know where I might look next? Thanks.

  13. I’m afraid I don’t, but it’s certainly intriguing. Anybody have any ideas?

  14. the name must be recognizable as either male or female
    Could you put Der or Die in front of it, for clarity’s sake?

  15. I take issue with the assertion that Sweden maintains a list of given names. I quote from article 34, the Swedish Names Act: “No name may be approved as a given name which may cause offence or can be assumed to lead to discomfort for the one who is to wear it, or which for any other reason obviously is not suitable for use as a given name.” That’s all the law says. No mention of a list. Overturning previous practice, a court recently allowed a man to take Madeleine as a middle name, to take one example.
    I cannot help but quote the following article in the law: “Someone who wishes to wear, next to a given name, a farm name, which he or she has a connection to through kinship or marriage and which of old custom is in use as a byname, shall report this to the Tax Agency.” In the province of Dalarna in particular, people have traditionally worn the name of their farm in the position of a given name, and the law allows such names to gain legal recognition. One example is fashion designer Nygårds Anna Bengtsson.

  16. “In Germany one of The Rules for names is that the name must be recognizable as either male or female.”
    According to this article, http://www.beliebte-vornamen.de/3841-uni.htm that’s not quite right. Apparently the rule is that if the name can be used for either a girl or a boy, a second name has to be added that is unequivocally male or female.

  17. Some years ago I was told that masculine Evelyn is pronounced as a compound name: Eve-lyn.

  18. I knew someone who used to claim that when the name “Meredith” is said properly it has two syllables — the second “e” is silent. Wouldn’t you know it? Her name was Meredith.

  19. My friend Beatrice idiosyncratically pronounces her name with only two syllables, Bee-triss. It took me years to get it right, although she doesn’t actually complain when someone pronounces it in the normal trisyllabic English style.
    In Dorothy L. Sayers’s translation of the Divine Comedy, she went to a lot of work to make sure that you could pronounce the name in either English trisyllabic or Italian tetrasyllabic fashion. Where she could not, she spelled it Beatrix.
    Bruessel: That must be right, or there wouldn’t be all those Catholic male Germans named Nomen Maria Nescio Schmidt.

  20. masculine Evelyn is pronounced as a compound name: Eve-lyn.
    So is the women’s name in Britain. I think it’s more that the Ev-lyn pronunciation is North American.

  21. In The Russians are Coming there’s a man who pronounces his horse’s name Bee-triss.

  22. j. del col says

    A man named Speed Vogel was a good friend of the author Joseph Heller.
    His real name was Irving Vogel, but he picked up the ironic name ‘Speed’ at a summer camp because he was the sloweswt at tying his shoes. He preferred it to Irving.

  23. ‘I knew someone who used to claim that when the name “Meredith” is said properly it has two syllables — the second “e” is silent. Wouldn’t you know it? Her name was Meredith. ”
    That makes it sound like “Little Shit”. Merdette?

  24. j. del col says

    The man with the horse in The Russians are Coming… was played by the comic actor Ben Blue, one of his last roles.

  25. marie-lucie says

    The law on names used to be quite strict in France, although some officials allowed some leeway. My mother’s mother wished her daughter to be called “Rosette”, but that was refused, so she was legally “Marie-Rose”, although she was always called “Rosette”. More recently a French-English couple was refused the right to name their daughter “Marjorie” in spite of the fact that the name is quite pronounceable in French, without obnoxious connotations (I think they eventually won their case). Some Breton parents were also frustrated as Breton names for their children were refused (in all those cases, the children’s birth could not be registered, denying parents family allowances and other benefits, and children the right to attend school).
    Nowadays the law has been either repealed or at least changed, and just about anything goes, in part because of the large numbers of immigrants with non-French names, who can’t all be denied the right to name their children according to traditional customs. But the most popular names nowadays (at least among ethnic French people apparently ignorant of English) seem to be those of English-speaking actors and celebrities, written either as in English (and pronounced in a hybrid manner, like “Ethan” pronounced as if ‘Étane’ or “Ryan” ‘Ra-yane’) or written to represent an approximate French pronunciation of an English name (like English “Jason” written ‘Djézonne’, unlike the French name of the Greek hero but reflecting the pronunciation of French actors dubbing American movies).

  26. Nice to see you back, m-l!

  27. marie-lucie says

    Thanks, LH! I spent two weeks in France and had barely time to turn around to go to a conference in Pittsburgh, of all places. I hope to stay put for a while and have time to catch up with the Hat crowd.

  28. So, Tuesday Weld could not have been Martedi Weld in Italy?

  29. I have a pet theory about the name Jayden. Its rise occurred around the first airing of the Star Trek: the Next Generation episode Thine Own Self on February 14, 1994, in which Data (the android crew member) loses his memory and is dubbed Jayden by the people who find him. I think at the time it was an unusual name, chosen to sound alien. I suspect its use picked up after the episode because people heard it and liked it.
    Of course, it’s entirely possible that the ST:TNG writers heard the name used before they used it, but I would still argue that the explosion in use was at least in part driven by the TV show.

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