My parents named me in memory of my father’s younger brother. That’s what the name David meant to them. But David is also a Hebrew name meaning “beloved.” We don’t give a child a name for its literal sense nowadays. If a name has a meaning it’s a sentimental one, or because the name is novel or fashionable.
In an article in the London Review of Books, James Davidson writes about names that not only “could be meaningful but … [also] were meant.” Davidson covers Anglo-Saxon naming practices and surveys the transformation of baby naming in the U.K. since 1800 before he gets around to his focus, which is ancient Greece.
“Ancient Greece was a culture where names were assumed to mean something,” he writes.
“Just as we translate Native American names such as Tashunka Witko (‘Crazy Horse’), Tatanka Iyotake (‘Sitting Bull’), Woqini (‘Hook Nose’) and Tashunka Kokipapi (‘Young Man Afraid of His Horses’), and even those of the ancient Maya (King ‘Jaguar Paw II’, ‘Smoking Frog’, now renamed ‘Fire Is Born’), so we could refer to famous Greeks as ‘He Who Loves Horses’ (Philip), ‘Masters (with) Horses’ (Hippocrates), ‘Flat-Nose’ (Simon), ‘Stocky’ (Plato), ‘Famed as Wise’ (Sophocles).” he writes.
Ancient Israel also was a culture where names met something, at least it seems so. The Bible is full of people who were given names that reflected their essence or circumstances. Adam was named for the red earth from which he was created. Sarah laughed when told she would conceive in her old age and named her son Laughter (Yitzhak). Jacob was born grabbing the heel of his elder twin brother Esau and was named Heel (Ya’akov). Pharaoh’s daughter saved the infant Moses from drowning in the Nile and called him Drawn from the Water (Moshe).
So we have Ishmael (“God Has Heard”), Dan (“Judgment”), Yosef (“Addition”) and Yisrael (“Wrestles with God”). And the retinue of angelic names — Michael, Raphael, Gavriel, Uriel, Ariel — with the name of God — El — as the second element.
Or were those meanings read into those names? Did Moses’s name take on that meaning only because Moshe sounds like the Hebrew for “the one who is drawn out”? Similarly, I wonder if Jesse and Mrs. Jesse named their youngest son Beloved because they thought it fit him, or because they really liked the name David?
What does your name mean?