Thursday, April 30, 2009
Names and reactions
I have gotten many nice comments about the Librarian's Lobby article for May. In fact as of today more than 813 people have downloaded the file. This is about 4 times the average number of downloads. Some people pointed out areas that they disagreed with me. One person told me that I missed one letter in a footnote. The word was not really misspelled, but it was alternative spelling. Now I know people really pay attention. Some people gave alternative explanations for names. In particular, the name Jessica. "Jessica" was a name Shakespeare used in the Merchant of Venice. It is possible that he coined the name. Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz in his commentary on Genesis 11:29 says that Iscah יסכה is the basis for Shakespeare's "Jessica." Others say the source is the feminine for of Yeshai ישי (Jesse in English). Both make sense linguistically. So far I have not found any way to verify what Shakespeare had in mind. I did not find any listing of the name before Shakespeare. I did find hundreds of names from what is now Great Britain that have not been used in more than 500 years. Most names that pre-date the Norman Conquest are not used.
Parents are free to choose any names they want. They may even invent their own meanings. When that is done they create folk etymologies. These etymologies are not usually connected to a linguistic etymology. One commenter suggested that name "Simha Bunim" is from a play on words, based on Psalm 113 which ends "He transforms the barren wife into a glad mother of children [em habanim smeicha], halleluyah". The commenter says, "With a little imagination, you change the reading of em habanim smeicha to 'the mother of Simcha Bunim.'"
Names transform for one language to another because of the way each language deals with phonemes. Written letters both consonants and vowels have different sounds. There is even a regional difference within one country or language tradition. When words are borrowed among languages the word may take on a meaning that is exactly the same, more general, or more specific meaning. For example: in German Tier means animal. The cognate in English is: deer is an example of the general becoming specific. Wolf is the same in both languages.
Names also follow fads. Jews have followed these fads somewhat. There are certain names that are more associated with Jews just as there are some names more associated with other ethic groups. There were hundreds of years that Biblical names were rare. Today in Christian and Jewish families Biblical names are used. Even names very English sounding names like Elizabeth and Jessica are from Hebrew roots. There are many names in from the Bible that are not used. Some like Esau and Ismael are used by non-Jews. Some like, Terah, Cain, and Lot are just not used.