Still on my colonial history kick, I’m reading Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, about the worst conflict in early American history, King Philip’s War of 1675-76 (although, as she says, “Its very name, each word in its title—’King,’ ‘Philip’s,’ ‘War’—has been passionately disputed”). I checked it out of the Athenaeum because I couldn’t resist the title of Chapter 1, “Beware of Any Linguist,” and I’m glad I did—I’ve found all kinds of goodies just in the introduction, “What’s in a Name?” The first one I want to share is this discussion of the name of the eponymous Wampanoag leader:

It is possible that Philip called himself “Philip” when addressing the English and “Metacom” when talking with Indians. But it seems more likely that he simply abandoned the name Metacom after 1660. After all, Philip was raised in a culture in which people commonly adopted new names, leaving old names behind. Edward Winslow had observed in 1624, “All their names are significant and variable, for when they come to the state of men and women, they alter them according to their deeds or dispositions.” For just this reason, it is possible that Philip renamed himself during the war, to mark a new stage in his life, but surely he would not have returned to Metacom, the name of his youth. That no record of Philip’s new name survives should come as no surprise. Those who knew Philip by the name he went by at the time of his death, in August 1676, would not have uttered it: a strict naming taboo prohibited it. As Roger Williams had reported, “the naming of their dead Sachims, is one ground of their warres”; in 1665 Philip himself had traveled to Nantucket to kill an Indian who had spoken the name of his deceased father, Massasoit. If Philip took another name during the war, it has not survived. (Although one small, uncorroborated bit of evidence suggests that he may have been renamed “Wewesawamit.”) And, since he seems to have initially taken “Philip” in earnest, calling him “Metacom” today is no truer to his memory, especially because “Metacom” became a became a popular substitute for “Philip” only in the early nineteenth century, when white playwrights, poets, and novelists sought to make the war sound more authentically, and romantically, Indian.

I love this kind of detailed discussion. And something that completely delighted me was discovering the reason he was given the name Philip when he and his brother asked the Plymouth Court for new names after their father died:

But, in 1660, naming Metacom and Wamsutta “Philip” and “Alexander” after the ancient leaders of Macedonia was most likely a reference (oblique to us but obvious to them) to the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, an engraving of an Indian mouthing the words, “Come Over and Help Us,” and itself an echo of Acts 16:9, in which the Apostle Paul sees a vision of a Macedonian begging him, “Come over into Macedonia, and help us.” Plymouth authorities, like their Massachusetts counterparts, saw Indians as pagan Macedonians who, at heart, were desperate for the light of the gospel.

Philip and Alexander… Macedonia… Of course! You’ve got to know your Bible to understand the thinking of those learned Puritans.

Incidentally, you can see a reproduction of the Bay Colony seal accompanying a talk that Jill Lepore gave at the 1998 Advocating Massachusetts History Forum.


  1. The naming taboo is similiar to the Chinese. One wonders whether, as in China, Philip didn’t always have several names for different circumstances, including his taboo name. (Taboo names in China would be used by superiors as a sign of dominance, but it would be insulting for equals or inferiors to use them.)
    The sloppiness of Mongol naming practices really bothered the Chinese.

  2. I’m unfamiliar with the subject, so may be you’ll clarify something for me: if a person habitually changes his name during his lifetime, which one becomes tabu? Simply the last one he’s taken or there is some more complicated reasoning under the practice?

  3. Presumably the last one, since apparently each new one becomes the “real” one.

  4. Richard Hershberger says

    In an tangentially related point of interest, there were several baseball clubs in the 1870s in New England and Ontario named the Metacomets, which I believe is a variant of Metacom and not a reference to meteorological phenomena. There was also a club in New England named the King Phillips. These suggest to me that there was a surprising level of awareness of the colonial-era events.

  5. Very much so; once the Indians were no longer an immediate danger, romanticization set in, and John Augustus Stone’s Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags (1829), starring Edwin Forrest (who commissioned it, wanting “the best tragedy, in five acts, in which the hero, or principal character, shall be an aboriginal of this country”), was a huge hit (and hasn’t been forgotten to this day—I saw a performance in the late ’60s, and it played in New York last year). The bicentennial of the war was celebrated with much fanfare in 1875-76, further enhancing awareness of the events in New England (and probably leading to the naming of those baseball clubs).

  6. “The naming taboo is similiar to the Chinese. ”
    Lu Xun makes fun of this in “True Story of Ah Q” Supposedly the word “guo” replaced “bang” as the word for country during the Han dynasty, because “bang” was the personal name of the founder (Liu Bang).
    I wonder to what extent Iroquois people adopted English names. Both groups seem to to have operated pretty much on cultural par for a good long time, and probably intermarried the way people did in the South. Do Iroquois names show up in marriage registries in New York?

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