I find it odd that whenever someone asks a pregnant mother, “Do you have a name picked out?” the nearly universal reaction upon hearing the name is, “Oh, that’s so pretty!” or “Oh, that sounds so beautiful!”
Now, I understand. It’s a common, well-meaning response. I’ve given it before, too. But note how it’s all about sound. Names are valued by what they sound like, not what they mean. We raise the aural above the ontological.
This is a great departure from thousands of years of civilization. For most of human history, across many diverse cultures, people were given names drenched with meaning. Your name whispered something about who you were. It recalled a great relative or a magnanimous hero….or even a saint. Maybe it prophesied your future. If nothing else, it was a core part of your identity.
I was reminded of this while re-watching an old Vikings episode where Queen Aslaug named her son Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye Lothbrok. (That was actually the name of the real, historical child. His grandmother’s name was Valkyrie Brynhildr, also strange and dissonant, yet also meaningful.)
Would “Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye Lothbrok” win an award for Most Beautiful Name? Probably not. Would anyone say, “Oh, that’s so pretty!”? I doubt it. But does that name carry deep meaning? Oh, more than you know.
In our day, naming a child is simply about making sure the first and middle names sound harmonious (while ensuring the initials don’t represent a vulgar acronym – sorry, Addison Serenity Smith). The “meaning” of a name rarely extends beyond honoring a dead relative.
But I think we should be more careful in choosing names. The sound indeed matters, but the meaning more so. Ideally, the name would be melodious and carry deep meaning. Yet the latter is more significant.
So next time when a pregnant mother reveals her baby’s name, ask, “Ah, such a beautiful name. What does it mean?”
All names mean something. All names have some reason for their selection, even if the meaning is simply beauty.