18 September 2012

What's in a Name

It’s a wise parent whose children are satisfied with their Christian names.  Most of us have fantasies that our lives would be improved if we were called something less plain if we are called Jane, or something more plain if we’re called Aphrodite or Ebenezer.

Sam Goldwyn arrived in America with a Polish surname that was deemed unpronounceable by the immigration officers.  So he adopted the name Goldfish.  Goldwyn evolved as his name and the name of his movie company from an amalgamation of Goldfish and an early partner, Edgar Selwyn.  A lawsuit was brought, challenging his right to use the invented name.  In the course of the hearing the judge, who eventually ruled in Goldwyn’s favour, observed: ‘A self-made man may prefer a self-made name’.

There is a lot of self-made naming going on.  Pamella Bordes, the parliamentary researcher into the Net Book Agreement, put the second ‘l’ in Pamella because it was different, and perhaps because it suggests the fashionable double-barrelled first name, making the best of two worlds: Sue-Ellen, Pam Ella.

Pamela itself was first used by Sir Philip Sidney in his Arcadia (1590).  If he invented it, it is not clear quite what he meant by it, though a derivation from the two Greek words ‘all honey’, ie all sweetness, is possible.  Samuel Richardson brought the name into general use with Pamela Andrews, the heroine of his best-selling novel.  Pamela, in 1740.  In the 18th Century pronunciation varied between Pameela and the modern Pamela.  Peak popularity of Pamela in English-speaking countries was in the Fifties; the name has faded now.

Marilyn is another of these invented names getting the best of two names, Mary and Ellen.  One of its earliest users was Marilyn Miller, the American musical star of the Twenties, originally named Mary Ellen Miller.  In the Forties Marilyn Maxwell (christened Marvel Maxwell, poor kid) began to appear regularly in cinema screens.  By now the name had reached Britain, and became very popular in the Fifties.  Then came Marilyn Monroe (originally Norma Jean Baker or Mortenson), who was renamed by a casting agent with Marilyn Miller in mind.  Since then it seems to me that the name has faded in popularity in Britain at least. 

Teachers are the people who are better placed to keep closely in touch with changes of fashion in nomenclature.

Australian soaps that are beginning to lather our TV screens are a rich source of brave new names, such as Cheredith, which is presumably another two-pronged name, combining Cherry with Edith (or Judith?), by analogy with Meredith.

And Where did the girls’ name Kylie, as in Kylie Minogue originate?  Jolly interesting, as it happens.  It comes from karli, a name for a kind of boomerang in Nyungar and related languages of the Aborigines of Western Australia.  It is recorded as early as 1835: ‘I am sorry that nasty word boomerang has been suffered to supercede (sic) the proper name.  Boomerang is a corruption used at Sydney by the white people, but no the native word, which is tur-ra-ma, but kiley is the name here’.

Kiley was adapted in transferred use to mean a small piece of board upon which two pennies are rested for spinning in an Australian game: ‘The game is played with two pennies, a mattress, a thin piece of wood called a kip (sometimes a stick or a kiley), and amazing dexterity and ardour.’ Kylie’s use as a girls’ name was confined to Australia, until the arrival of Neighbours on our screens.  It has interacted and mated with Kelly, the Irish surname used as a Christian name for both boys and girls in Australia.  And Kylie was influenced by Grace Kelly, who played a leading role in vastly popular and influential High Society (1956).  The names of the tiresome character she portrayed in the film, Tracy Samantha, were also taken up from that time onwards.  On such silken threads are new names spun.

We are continually making up new names. J M Barrie invented Wendy for Peter Pan in 1904, after a child had used the two phrase ‘friendy-wendy’ to him.  In fact there were already several Germanic names in existence, such as Wendelburg and Wendelgard, which might have produced such a pet name less nauseatingly. The silly name has been helped along by three British actresses: Wendy Hiller, Wendy Barrie and Wendy Craig. 

Thelma was invented by Marie Corelli for the heroine of her noval Thelma (1887), presumably based on the Greek thelema, will. Thelma Ritter, the comedienne, gave it a boost but it has faced, and it’s now quietly used, mostly by black American parents.

Fiona was invented as the first part of his pseudonym, Fiona Macleod, by William Sharp (1855 – 1905).  It’s derived from the Gaelic fionn, fair or white, became very popular in Scotland, reached a peak in England in the Seventies, but is not used in the United States.  There are tides in the names of men, and particularly women, and they are shifting, pulled by the moon of fashion, all the time.

(Article by Philip Howard)

See also: http://www.first-names-meanings.com/

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