What’s In A Name?

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” or so the Bard would tell us. He’s got a valid point, but the exact names of things, places and especially people can still tell us a lot about them… things we might not know if the name were different. I shall provide some name-related resources later in this post, so stay tuned.

A person’s first name can tell us about people and things that were important to their parents, and can be a helpful indicator of cultural or religious background… though cases like the TomKat baby remind us that they are not necessarily a reliable indicator on the cultural or religious end. It can also reveal something about the relationship between parents such as who has the final say in name choice. In cases where a person has changed their own name (such as a former friend of mine who went from Elgin to Kassandra…), that can tell us a lot about them too. One of my older brothers had a highschool acquaintance that, during the punk movement, changed his first name to “Man” on a lark.

Given names are chosen for a very wide variety of reasons, including description, family tradition, the name of an ancestor, relative or friend, religious (such as the practice of naming children after saints or similar figures, as well as the Puritan practice of giving children names from the Biblical virtues like Chastity…), literary (I guess we can count pop-culture influences like the names of Disney princesses here…), practices relating to fate/happenstance (as in the notorious joke about the Native American boy whose name was translatable as “Two Dogs Humping”), based on a particular meaning (I include “hippy names” like Star, Crystal and Sunflower in this category), just purely being based on the sound or many other reasons. This is a short but interesting article about the origins and history of given names. Many now-extant names have been around so long and been modified so many times over the centuries that it’s nearly impossible to determine exactly where they came from or what they originally meant. Often, I’ve asked people from non-anglo cultures if there’s any specific meaning behind their name and gotten “oh, it’s just a name” as a response… much the same as I’ve heard from many anglos. The same name can have different meanings in different cultures as well.

Case in point: like many others, my name has a story behind it. I’ve posted a bit about my first name’s origin and meaning before, but I’m doing it again because it’s pertinent. I was named Hal after my father’s best friend, who is also the man that inspired him to become a Latter-Day Saint. Through my parents’ many years of childbearing (they had nine of us spread across 19 years), my father repeatedly attempted to convince my mother that they should name a son Hal after his friend. However… she loathed the name, so she was having none of it for a long time. Finally, when child #8 came along, she agreed to give the kid Hal for a middle name if it was a boy. Well, in the later stages of pregnancy she had a dream correctly telling her that said kid was going to be a girl.. and going on to indicate that there would be another boy on the way before much longer… one who was supposed to have/had chosen Hal for a first name… and the name she wanted for the boy’s first name for a middle name. So when I finally came down the chute, I got the name she believed that I had asked for, and Dad finally got what he wanted. It’s a good thing too, since I was their last child (coincidence?).

As for the origins of Hal: it’s English, being a medieval pet form of Harry and Henry (hence “Prince Hal” in the Bard’s writings), which name in turn is derived from the Germanic Heimerich which meant “home ruler”, composed of the elements heim “home” and ric “power, ruler”. interestingly, this name was introduced into Britain by the Normans… good old frenchified vikings. I’ve also seen some sources that gave definitions like warchief, which is largely equivalent given the cultural origins in question. Related names are Ulric/Ulrich (wolf-power/ruler) and of course Moorcock’s Elric.

Some Japanese friends pointed out to me that the Japanese word haru (a direct transliteration of Hal) means “spring” in their language, so for a time the kanji for it became my artist signature, prompting some of my Japanese classmates to cheerfully and deliberately call me Haru from then on. I abandoned the practice a year or two ago amidst annoyance at pocky-craving otaku. When my brother served his mission in Japan, the smart aleck used a selection of characters for our family name that translates as “lord of punishment” on his nametag. A Chinese friend has told me that my family + given name in one configuration of Chinese characters translates into “laughing card” (which I interepret as a Joker).

People attach considerable importance to names, even mystical importance. Numerological systems relating to names have been around for some time now. I found great amusement in reading the fluffy numerology report that one new age-y website gave on my name while I was working on this post. As with any of these vague things, they hit some traits I actually have, and were way off the mark on others. I covered Uhlrik in the report too, for amusement’s sake… I was not disappointed in that regard.

For the gamer-geeks out there, I provide a rather wide-ranging name randomizer. It is part of Behind the Name, a pretty useful site on name etymology & history around the world.

Surnames can often be highly informative, and are (nowadays) a little less subject to the vagaries of whim and fashion, though their history can be very complex and confusing. The most common sources of last names are the patronymic/ancestral, toponymic/locative (either based on place of residence, landscape features or holdings… 43% of American surnames are locative), epithet/nickname, or occupation. An interesting side case relates to the Peculiar Institution: most black Americans are of West African stock, and a large percentage of these have surnames derived from their anglo-American former owners  (names like Jackson, Jefferson, O’Neil, Davis, Dalton and so on). A little blurb about surnames can be found here. Here’s a slightly more in-depth article on surnames found in the US. Better yet is the lengthy Wikipedia Article on surnames around the world. Their mention of the Dutch practice of confusing or comical names (as a way of tweaking Napoleon’s officials) is certainly worth a look, as is the segment on the complicated history of Jewish surnames.

Back to my own name, since I know you find its origins to be absolutely riveting. According to ancestry.com, there are 4 different possible origins for the name Case in the US:

  1. English: from Anglo-Norman French cas(s)e ‘case’, ‘container’ (from Latin capsa), hence a metonymic occupational name for a maker of boxes or chests.
  2. Americanized spelling of French Caisse.
  3. Americanized spelling of Kaas.
  4. Americanized spelling of German Käse, a metonymic occupational name for a maker or seller of cheese. Compare Kaeser.

The Case family line is one of the parts of my ancestry in which the least amount of data has been forthcoming up to now (we’ve gone back around 500 years in quite a few of my lines), only going back to 1836 in Ohio, but the individual in question’s full name was Nehemiah Thomas Case, which is at least a little helpful since they’re Biblical names with the English spelling. Not necessarily specific enough for absolute accuracy, but so far my educated guess would be that my version of the name Case comes via English ancestors. Fortunately, my Case-side uncle has recently uncovered some more research on his ancestors and is supposedly going to send it my way, so more answers may soon be forthcoming. 

I do know that my ancestry is pretty complex. My dad’s side seems to mostly be English and “Pennsylvania Dutch” German with a fair bit of Irish in there too. My mother’s side is further mixed because each of her 4 grandparents was from a different origin: English (with family branches in Wales, Ireland and likely Scotland as well), Dutch (with deep roots in Prussian nobility), Norweigian and Swiss (some German-language and some French-language ancestry). There are a few instances of guys marrying their sisters in the Swiss and Dutch sides, which was kind of fun to notice.

In contrast to the difficulties with the name Case, K’s maiden name can be traced straight back through a Revolutionary war general (wrong side, though) to a Norman nobleman at Hastings in 1066 AD.

But that’s enough blathering about myself, it’s time to provide a couple more resources for the interested party.

Family Facts – a slew of interesting resources for finding out things like name distribution in the US & UK, name meanings, occupations of people with that name, immigration years of name populations, points of origin and points of departure. Good for digging up a few clues, as well as just being kinda fun to fiddle with. Part of ancestry.com.

US Surname Distribution – This is a cousin to the surname distribution thing above that also has the option of dynamic display of how the distribution changed from 1850-1990. I think this is a really cool resource.

The DMarie Time Capsule – a funky little site that shows what happened on particular days in history. I like to present these to people that I’m doing research for to help them get a feel for what was going on in the world on significant dates in their or ancestors’ lives.  information ranges from the critical (world history events) to the trivial (top toys, books and musical numbers).

General Family History Websites:
Familysearch – the LDS church’s family history website. Has access to a wide variety of records and is regularly updated.
Ancestry.com’s learning center
Genealogy.com’s learning center
Ellis Island Passenger Search
Vitalrec Vital Records Information – mostly oriented on the US, but has some international resources too. Used to find things like birth certificate information, marriage licenses and such, and will show how to obtain copies of the original documents. A valauble, valuable resource in my experience.
Vitalsearch – similar to the above. Sometimes their information overlaps, sometimes not. I seldom use just vitalrec or just vitalsearch. They always go hand in hand when I’m doing research. It’s a worldwide database, too.


What’s in a name? A heck of a lot of information.

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5 Responses to “What’s In A Name?”

  1. riajean Says:

    my name: Myria
    what it’s supposed to be: Moriah, taken from the song, They call the wind Moriah. (or Mariah, but the Mo is better imo)
    how it got that way: Mom liked the song, she didn’t like research, so when it came time to put the name on the birth certificate, she blanked and then decided the Riah part of it was Ria, and that since I was her Ria, it should be My-Ria.

    FASCINATING! and great post. 🙂

  2. uhlrik Says:

    That’s a very cool story.

  3. bosantibe Says:

    Names have always been an odd prospect. My mother is a genealogy buff, but when it came to naming us she says she picked our names to protect us from name-related scorn. Kiddies being inventive as they can, they made due with my three older siblings, though looking at the insults they had to deal with I wonder if these inventive children weren’t a little bit retarded, but who can say. In my case she gave up and simply doled out a name she personally liked. The few name-insults I’ve taken made me laugh in the faces of the aggressors, so in the long run it seems mother’s plan worked. Coincidentally I’m her last as well.

    I don’t think the etymology of her research has ever really dawned on her, which is odd considering the significance she places on origins when she does said research.

    Me, I’ve always been more for faces than names. They have that real-time feel to the information they impart and I’ve never seen two that were so alike I couldn’t tell them apart. Even the identical twins I’ve met carried themselves differently. It’s a vast and interesting spectrum, identity is.

  4. uhlrik Says:

    I find all forms of forming, defining and comprehending identity fascinating, not just names. 🙂

    As for the name-scorn thing… I’ve got stoires about parents I’ve kown trying really hard to do that… and utterly blowing it. Good times.

  5. bosantibe Says:

    Yes. If only scientist-parents could isolate the gene that allows one to detect the name-defensive trait. What a utopia that would be for over-defensive parents around the world.

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