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The Meaning Of Names, Descriptive Names, and Name-Calling

Monday 09 April 2018 at 11:06 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for April 5, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Shiki, one of my favorite Japanese poets, once wrote a haiku about himself that, in English, went like this:

                        Tell them

‘                       I was a persimmon eater

                        who liked haiku

            Since in other poems, Shiki wrote about how much he liked to eat persimmons, and how sad he was when his stomach didn’t allow him to, I think his identifying himself as a “persimmon eater” is very apropos, and certainly tongue-in-cheek since he was a very famous haiku writer. I rather like the name, Persimmon Eater!

            It occurred to me that we still use descriptive names like that for ourselves and for one another in spite of the fact birth-record names no longer have the importance they had in ancient times. While surnames are no longer considered even remotely descriptive, first names or given names, are still descriptive (though few people realize it). In ancient times, surnames like Stern, Strong, Long, Swift, described the character traits of the person, or, in the case of Baker, Smith, Appleman, Barber, Driver, they identified him by his profession. Because many English first names were derived from Old English, or from other languages, most folks haven’t a clue as to what they mean, and certainly don’t choose the name because they want it to be descriptive of their child.

            However, Natïve Americans would chose names for their children which were intentionally descriptive. Typical Apache names are Grey Wolf, Great Hawk, Yellow Horse, Wise Woman, and Earth. Typical Cherokee names are Red Bird, White Owl, and Standing Turkey. Navajo names are He Fights, High Backed Wolf, and Raven. I don’t know if they chose the name because the child seemed to be like that description, or whether they wanted the offspring to grow into that image. Either reason would be a good one.

            When we look at the widespread use of nicknames today, as well as the widespread tendency to give descriptive names to other people (done affectionately, playfully, and even maliciously), we realize the instinct to identify people descriptively is still very much a part of our culture.

            President G. W. Bush was known for giving playful names to many of the foreign leaders whom he met, the one he gave Vladimir Putin, a widely reported case in point. And of course President Donald Trump has taken that tendency to even greater extremes, -- perhaps his most famous example was calling North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, “Rocketman.” Twitter, I think, has caused this kind of descriptive name-calling to accelerate.

            While I have no problem with affectionate nicknames, such as calling a tall, thin person “Slim,” I am really bothered by sarcastic descriptions, because those easily become rather harsh name-calling. One of my aunts was called “Fatty” (literally “The Fat One”) in German, because she was overweight, which I now think was a little mean, but when I was a kid I didn’t know what the German word meant, so it didn’t bother me. She apparently thought it was funny and didn’t mind it, especially since in later years she was rather slim.

            In today’s world, couples choose names for their babies for many different reasons, the most common probably being the popularity of that name at this particular point in history, regardless of what the name actually means. I have often wondered where on earth my parents came up with the given names, Raymond and Ralph, for their twins. Both “Raymond” and “Ralph” are English names, not Wendish or German, -- “Raymond” being a rather refined English name and “Ralph” being the name of a frequent clown-character in English Medieval drama, as well as in Shakespeare. I’m sure my parents didn’t know about that, just as I’m sure they didn’t know “Raymond” meant “Faithful Protector.”

            But, if you want to call me a descriptive name, I’d be happy with “Faithful Protector.”


Ray Spitzenberger is a free-lance writer who lives in East Bernard with his beautiful wife Peggy and spoiled cat Gatsby.

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