Monday, May 05, 2003

Anyone who has a baby these days cannot avoid the plethora of books and websites that list thousands of baby names, along with their supposed "meanings." What I wonder about, however, is what it really means to say that a name "means" something.

A few English "names" are words that serve other purposes in our language. The name "Mark" can also be used as a word meaning "grade" or "signifier." The name "Joy" obviously has a meaning. But English also has a whole class of words that are used only as names -- Jennifer, Jonathan, Amy, Bradley, etc.

Yet books and websites purport to provide the "meanings" for all of these names. According to this website, for example, "Bernard" means "steady."

So, does that mean that there was a time in English when "Bernard" (or some variant or precursor) was actually used in sentences, as in "I hope that ship holds bernard"? How about "Alison," which supposedly means "holy." Was there a time when it would have been appropriate to say, "The priest is a good and alison man"?

I'd like to know. Because it would be very interesting if all the words that we use solely as names were indeed once used as regular words. If that's the case, then I have another question: At what point did English stop naming people exclusively with regular words, and instead create a separate class of words to be used exclusively as names? And why?


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