When you’re with some friends and you don’t have anything better to do,
start a discussion about where everyone’s first names come from.
This story is based on the characters in the novel Bryce and Damon IV on AwesomeDude.
One evening, after all the brouhaha over the attacks on the University of Clinton campus had been talked out, the six friends whom Jason called the philosophical roundtable were assembled at Pat’s Tavern. These were Bryce Winslow, Damon Watkins, Mike Sandoval, David Simpson, Jason Todd, and Nate Hagan. Once they had given up on rehashing the recent events concerning the Lomax, Campbell, and Cuttlesworth gang, and their evil genius, Peter Gruber, there was a lull in the conversation. Across the room, they noticed Curtis Manning and his wife Maddy.
“Interesting names,” Bryce commented.
“You have a thing about names,” Jason said.
“Yeah, maybe,” Bryce admitted. “I’m not sure it means anything, but I find names fascinating.”
“Like yours, for instance?” Mike teased him.
“Well, take mine for example,” Bryce replied. “As you all know, I am officially James Bryce Winslow, and there’s a story behind each of those names.”
Jason moaned, but Nate said, “We’ve run out of other things to talk about this evening. Let the man run on.”
“Okay, Bryce, you have carte blanche. Tell us about names,” Jason conceded.
“Let’s start with mine,” Bryce said, never too shy about putting himself first. “I was named James for my paternal grandfather, James Wentworth Winslow. James is one of those names which is of biblical origin, like a lot of common names in all the Western languages, including Michael and David,” he said, indicating Mike Sandoval and David Simpson. “It’s odd, but we have two versions of the original Hebrew. We use Jacob for the Old Testament version, and James for the New Testament version. I am definitely a New Testament person. You find variations of this name in all the western European languages. Like English, Spanish has several variations. The most common is Diego, but you find it also in the form of Santiago, which refers specifically to St. James the Greater, the Apostle, who is the patron saint of Spain. But there’s also the version found mostly in the eastern parts of Spain which is Jaime. In French, it’s Jacques, and in Italian Jacopo. In German it’s Jakob, whether the Old or the New Testament version.
“So much for my real first name. My second name is Bryce. It’s actually by mother’s family name. But there is a legend that all the Bryces or Brices are descended from Britius, the bishop of Tours who succeeded St. Martin, back in the fourth century. I suppose it’s possible, as he was quite a lady’s man before his conversion, I understand, but those kinds of legends are impossible to substantiate.”
“Oh, so you’re unique,” Mike teased.
“Not at all. Most of us have names which have a history,” Bryce insisted. “Let’s take you, Juan Miguel. Your first name, Juan, is the most common given name in the Western world, and you find variations of it in every European language. It’s a biblical name, too, and like James, has both an Old and New Testament version. Look at St. Peter. In one place he’s called Simon, son of John, and in another it’s Simon bar Jonah. Jonah, like the guy with the whale, is the Old Testament version, and John is the New Testament version. And you find it everywhere. Your version is Spanish, but it would be Giovanni in Italy, or Jean in France, of Johan in Germany, or the shortened version, Hans. Among the Celtic peoples of the British Isles, it becomes Ian in Scotland, or Evan in Wales, or Sean in Ireland, and in this country among people who can’t spell, it’s Shawn. If you go further east, it’s Jan in Poland, and Ivan in Russia. You’re everywhere. And the name you go by, Mike, or Michael, or Miguel in the Spanish, that’s a biblical name, too. St. Michael the Archangel, who drove Lucifer out of Heaven. The most famous person with that name is probably Michelangelo, whose names means Michael the Angel. You are absolutely famous,” Bryce insisted.
“What about me?” Jason asked.
“Well, in addition to biblical names, one of the more common sources of given names in English is the Classical world. Your name is Greek in origin. There is the famous story of Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece.”
“Uh huh,” Jason nodded, obviously never having heard of the Argonauts or the Golden Fleece.
“Another well known name of Greek origin is Philip. It means a lover of horses,” Bryce continued. “You might recall that in the musical ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ the seven brothers all were supposed to have biblical names. When it came to the sixth brother, he was named Frank, and the female lead, I don’t remember her name at the moment, said she did not remember a Frank in the Bible. The eldest brother, Adam, said their mother could not find one either, and so named the boy Frankincense. It’s true. There are no biblical characters whose name begins with an F. That’s because our Bible comes to us by way of Greek, and so the F sound is represented by PH. So we have Philip, and also Philemon and Phineas, among others. That’s a kind of sideline, I guess,” Bryce noted.
“I thought this whole topic was a sideline,” Nate said.
“That reminds me,” Bryce continued, “your name, Nate, is actually Ignatius, another classical name, for St. Ignatius of Antioch, and, I suppose, for the much later St. Ignatius of Loyola. In Spanish he comes out as Ignacio, but he was Basque in origin, and I’m afraid I know nothing about that language.”
“Miraculi dictu,” Mike commented in an aside.
“But other Classical names which are quite common in English include Anthony, from Antonius, like Mark Anthony, and the female version, Antonia, and Julius, for Caesar, and the female version Julia, and the most common Roman name, Marcus, or Mark in English, and the female version Marcia, or sometimes spelled Marsha. There are others, like Horace, and the female Hortense, like Napoleon’s step-daughter.”
“Oh, we all know about Napoleon’s step-daughter,” Jason commented.
But Bryce was impervious to these sarcastic comments. He was wound up, and so went on for some time more. “In addition to the names we get from the Bible, and those from the Classical World, we also get given names of Germanic origin. Going back to poor Frankincense, we do have names in English which begin with an F. The most common are probably Francis and Frederick. Francis is found all over the Western world. In Italy, it’s Francesco, as in San Francesco d’Assisi, and in Spanish it’s Francisco. In German it’s Franz, and in French François. It comes from a Germanic root meaning ‘free,’ but you won’t find it as a given name much before the twelfth century. And, of course, there are the female versions in each of these languages. In English, it’s Frances, with an E, often abbreviated Fran. Frederick is less common, but it has a really nice etymology. The Fried part at the beginning means ‘peace’ and the ‘reich’ part that follows means realm, so Frederick is the realm or kingdom of peace.
“Another common given name of Germanic origin is William. If you look it up in one of those books on what to name the baby, they will give you a nice sounding etymology. I remember one which was ‘strong of resolve.’ But reduced to the basics, it means ‘stubborn.’ It’s another name you find in most of the European languages, such as Guillermo in Spanish, Guglielmo in Italian, and Guillaume in French. Notice that the W sound is rendered by GU in the Romance languages. It’s Wilhelm in German, Willem in Dutch, and Wilhjalmar in Swedish. I’ve seen it rendered as Vladimir in Russian, but I’m not convinced by that etymology”
“Anything else? You’ve covered Mike, David, Jason, and me,” Nate said.
“Well, there are common English names of Celtic origin,” Bryce noted. “I guess the most common is Kenneth. Most of the names we think of as Irish are actually Irish versions of biblical names, like Sean for John or Seamus for James, or Classical origin, like Patrick for Patricius, but there’s a genuine Celtic name in Colin, which is quite popular these days. I suspect it’s actually of Latin origin, though, as a version of Columbinus, or ‘dove like.’ When we get to female names, there’s Meghan, sometimes spelled without the H, and Eileen, and Colleen, but Colleen simply means ‘girl.’ And Eileen is a version of the Classical name Helen. We have Helen of Troy, and also St. Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. A version of that name is Ellen, and in Spanish Elena.”
“Anything else?” Jason asked.
“Well, there’s always Mary among female names,” Bryce went on. “Like John among male names, it’s the most common female name in the Western world. Maria in Spanish and Italian. Marie in French. It comes from the Hebrew Miriam, like the sister of Moses in the Old Testament. And there’s the female form of John, which comes out as Hannah, or Giovanna, or Juana, or Jean, or Joan or Johanna. And then there’s Margaret, which means a pearl. And Magdalene. Maddy Manning is Madeline, which is a French version of this name. It comes from St. Mary Magdalene, which refers to her town of origin, Magdala,” Bryce went on.
He continued, “Last names are interesting, too. In most Western languages, they derive from one of four sources, place of origin, patronymic, description, or occupation. For example, someone named Washington originated in the village of that name in northern England. Someone named Jones is a son of John. Someone named White or Long had an ancestor with very light colored hair, probably a Scandinavian, or a very tall person. And someone named Smith was descended from someone who worked at a forge. That’s also true in many other languages. For example, Smith in Spanish is Herrera, or in Italian it’s Ferrar, or in German it’s Schmidt, or in Polish it’s Kowalski.”
“You know what?” Mike said. “No body really care about all this.”
That did not deter Bryce, however. He turned to Damon. “I must confess, I am totally confused by the naming practices of the black community.”
“Nice to know there’s something you don’t claim to know,” Damon commented. “I really think my mother intended to name me for the evil little guy in the movies, Damien, but just got it wrong. But there is that Greek guy in the legend of Damon and Pythias. I just cannot imagine my mom knowing about a Greek legend. Then there’s my sister Vanessa. Don’t know where that came from, although I like it. My nephew Nathan is one of those biblical names, I guess. And my sister Beyoncé was named for the singer, and my sister Wanita is just Juanita spelled wrong. My mom was not great at spelling.”
“There are a lot of people named for popular figures. It kind of dates them when they grown up,” Bryce noted. “Some are pretty well established, like Franklin, as in Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That’s probably from Benjamin Franklin, and that in turn is from the condition of a franklin, meaning a free man who owned his own land. But we use a lot of family names as given names, such as Wayne, Lee, Curtis, and Craig. Also, mostly for females, Madison, Meredith, and Ashley. I don’t know why those names became popular given names, or why some are considered male names and others female names,” Bryce said. “Some things really are a mystery.”
“Well,” Mike said, “as usual, the Bard said it best. ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ Romero and Juliette, Act two.”
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