|The Death of Safe Strength, with Grayman and Brightman at his side.|
When I was younger, I was entranced by some Native American names that were also plain-language words: names like "Ben Nighthorse Campbell" (the former Senator from Colorado). Google is helping me turn up other examples: "Creepingbear," "Lone Hill." The practice seems common to a number of nations and languages, and I presume that they are English translations of names that would have been common in languages that are now endangered or lost. There was a certain evocative beauty in having a part of your name lie so manifestly close to its signification. We all enjoy knowing the etymologies, the "real meanings," of our names (that George means "earth-worker," or that Jennifer is cognate with "Guinevere"). What if all that information lay on the surface of language? I love the way a name like "Nighthorse" turns something very familiar (namely, the words "night" and "horse") into something strange and beautiful.
Lately, it has occurred to me that this contemporary English-language naming practice among so many Native American cultures has an analogue in Ancient Greece, where personal names that often seem strange and difficult to us usually have some obvious surface-level meaning in Greek. If we translated them all, it would result in the Greeks sounding—at least to a modern speaker of American English—rather Native American. The playwright Sophocles, son of Sophilus—author of Oedipus the King and Antigone—would be Wise Glory, son of Safe Friend. (His character Oedipus would be called Swollen Foot. )The famous Athenian orator and politician Demosthenes would be Strength-of-the-People. The philosopher Plato, son of Ariston, would be something like Broadman, son of Bestman. And so on and so forth.
I like the idea of rewriting Greek history and literature this way—Homeric epic, Platonic dialogue, the Peloponnesian War. We would have the hero Holder (Hector) return home from the battlefield to his wife Man-Battle (Andromache), tending their infant son City Lord (Astyanax), before reproaching his useless brother Man Defender (Paris/Alexander) for cowardice. We'd have the famous philosopher Safe Strength (Socrates) debate Bold Warrior (Thrasymachus) and Grayman (Glaucon) about the nature of justice. And Son of Gods' Glory (Thucydides) would write about the exile of Grief Stopper (Pausanias) and Law Renown (Themistocles) from Sparta and Athens. Strength-of-the-People would deliver an oration against his notorious, evocatively named rival, Mr. Smiley (Meidias).
It would force us to look at the past as someplace strange and new—not a parade of the half-famous, half-forgotten dead, a list of names that are difficult to pronounce, but people who are simultaneously like us and not, people less removed from the denotative meanings of their names than we—the Spencers and Georges and Jennifers of the world—are from ours. It would briefly defamiliarize the past, even as it brought us closer to it. (It would also make the ancient world a bit like it was happening as translated by Anne Carson. But I digress.)
I think that it's a common enough question for people with Asian names to be asked, "What does your name mean?" as though the denotative meaning is the primary one. I was recently trying to come up with a way to write my name in hanzi (Chinese characters); after unsuccessful attempts to find a stand-in for "Spencer," I realized that the Korean name I was given at birth, Young-il Lee (or Yeong-il Lee, depending on how you transliterate 이영일), could work. But the "meaning" is dependent on the hanzi (called hanja in Korean) you assign to it. The Korean government allows a range of different hanja for any one name element, so Young-il could just as easily be 永一 (yǒngyī, "eternal one") as 英逸 (yīngyì, "heroic escape"). I haven't settled the matter—I was probably assigned one on my birth certificate, and my sense of the phono- and ideogrammat-aesthetics of Korean and Chinese is too shaky to commit to something potentially ridiculous sounding. What is for certain is that Lee, the second most common family name in Korea, which I am told is actually pronounced and written as "Yi" by most South Koreans nowadays, means "plum tree," 李, in hanja and hanzi, and, for that matter, Japanese kanji, where the word would be sumomo (but the name would still be pronounced Lee/Rhee).
[I.S.* It's worth looking at this brilliant article on Korean names if you're at all curious.]
The delight of being interested in etymologies of names is that you can choose to live in this world all the time if you want. Rolling Stone's movie critic Rock Crossing (Pete Travers) says that Blessed Welshbrook (Benedict Cumberbatch) might be upset by Godlike Townsman (Michael Keaton) at this year's Oscars, with apologies to Crown Freeman (Steve Carell); it just wasn't his year.
*I.S.: inter scripta, like P.S., post scriptum. (Yeah, I just made that up.)