25 January 2009

The Post with No Name

All names have meanings, at least originally. (Admittedly some of them mostly mean "Look how stupid my parents are.")

"Philip Alexander Purser-Hallard", for instance, means "Lover of Horses, Saviour of Men, Steward, Steward" in Greek, Anglo-Norman and Anglo-Saxon[1]. Even in English, a good many names are more transparent than that, as both Heath Ledger and River Phoenix could attest if they didn't have that other thing in common.

In some cultures, personal names routinely have entirely transparent meanings, so that the most common Chinese surnames mean things like "Fruit", "King" and "Willow Tree". Generally, however, when people have transparent names, we refer to them by the same sounds they use when speaking their own language, rather than attempting to translate them.

The major exception to this, bizarrely enough, would appear to be members of the Lakota tribes of Native North Americans, such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud et al, all of whose names sound -- unless you have a problem with "foreign" words per se -- perfectly reasonable in Lakota.

The other borderline instances -- that I can think of, at least -- are fictional Chinese women, such as Rupert Bear's friend Tiger Lily (who may in any case be named after Peter Pan's friend Tiger Lily, who is -- very broadly speaking -- a Native American). There's a walk-on Hong Kong masseuse in Die Another Day who's named Peaceful Fountains of Desire, but that seems to be a throwaway racist / sexist joke for the old-guard Bond fans. In any case, the intention is to make the exotic seem less threatening (and therefore fit for childhood companionship and / or shagging) by familiarising it.

Sitting Bull and co I'm less sure about. Is the idea that people who name themselves after everyday objects must be inherently more primitive than people with perfectly sensible names like, say, Earp or Custer? The practice doesn't seem to extend even to other Native American tribes, so I'm guessing it's something very specific about the Lakota's interaction with Anglophone settlers.

I wonder whether a history of North American colonisation written in, say, Spanish would talk about "Tatanka Iyotanka" or "Toro Sentado"[2]?
[1] Actually, I'm not altogether sure what "Hallard" means. This site gives two entirely different etymologies, but family tradition tends to go with the first one, "hall-ward" -- supposedly meaning something along the lines of a butler or estates manager. Although it could equally mean the bloke who guarded the door, I'm amused by the idea that it means essentially the same as B.'s original surname of "Purser".
[2] Any linguistic solecisms are my own. [Edit: And actually, a quick google would have given me my answer there.]

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