Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Name Game

To answer the old question, there's a lot in a name.  Our individual names (given and surname both) come from somewhere ("Melissa" comes from the Greek for "honeybee;" I hope no one's name means "jerk" in some old language).  Jack Kerouac's family name can be traced to an ancestor from a "wet place" in Brittany; Henry VII Tudor's family name came from a  time when ordinary people only had a first name, in this case, Tedwr (Theodore).   Place names everywhere usually hide an intriguing story, and we don't call other peoples and their countries by their real names at all.  Egypt is from the Greek word for the place; it's called Misr in Arabic.  India is really Bharat.  The Chinese transliteration of America comes out Mei-kuo, which literally means "beautiful country."  The Hungarians have always called themselves Magyars, and the Greeks call their country Hellas.  Finland is Suomi:  not even close.
That emerald isle we commonly refer to as England has changed its official name to reflect expansion (unlike the United States, but they've been around a lot longer): England and Wales comprise Britain; add Scotland and you have Great Britain; add Northern Ireland and today it's the United Kingdom.  The English St. George, the Scots St. Andrew and the sort of made-up Irish St. Patrick crosses comprise the Union Jack (the Welsh dragon didn't make the cut).
The ancient Phoenicians didn't call themselves that; they were Canaanites but identified with their individual city-states only.  If the names we use are those bestowed by the "winners" of history, they often were or still are derogatory:  the adjective "Punic" used by the Romans to refer to the Phoenician Carthaginians had negative connotations due to their centuries of rivalry and war.  The followers of the Roman polytheistic religion were called "pagans" by the Christians, which derived from "peasant."  I think those referred to in the Old Testament as the people of Dan were actually Minoans, based on their superior metalworking skills.  So many lost peoples and places are referred to in the Bible, it makes you realize how little knowledge we have compared to what has vanished and appears only in a shadow of a memory.
When Europeans expanded over the New World, native names or versions of them were retained, but often misunderstood.  Sewickley, a borough near Pittsburg, claims its name means "sweet water," but it probably has a source in a contraction of the name of one of the seven clans of the Shawnee.  I think Michigan actually means "sweet water," but who knows for sure.  Chicago may mean "stinking water!"
The French explorers heard of the Sioux before they met them; that name which we've adopted comes from the Algonquin word "nadouessioux," which means either "foreign speaker" or "enemy."  The Sioux themselves refer to their allied nations as the Seven Council Fires.  The French also unkindly named the Atsina "Gros Ventres," or Big Noses, and the Wyandot they called "Huron," which just referred to their hair style.  Most native nations called themselves simply "the people," or added a distinguishing adjective such as the "raven people" (Crow in English, Absaroke in their language).  The tribal group in northwestern Pennsylvania wiped out by the Iroquois known to us as the Erie or the Neutrals called themselves the Cat People.  Too bad we don't know anything more about them, but they ticked off the mighty Iroquois, which was a fatal mistake in those days.
The French have the greatest variety in surnames, and the Koreans the least; I think all Sikhs are named Singh.  Makes their phone book pretty hard to alphabetize... Barcelona got its name from the Barca family of Carthage (of which Hannibal was the premier member); did their reputation for business acumen come from those Phoenician traders, who established that and many other still-vital Spanish cities?
It amuses me to chase down facts through history, but I'm guessing "page views" for this post will be 0.
And the only comment would probably be, "get a life, dude!"


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