What’s in a Name?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Zimbabwe
THEY did not have any children for many years of their marriage. So when a son was finally born to them, they named him “Takunda,” meaning “we have conquered.” Yes, they had “conquered” their childlessness. Here in Zimbabwe names often have meaning and purpose behind them.
The first man on earth was called Adam, which means “earthling man” or “mankind.” Since then every person has had a name and nearly all of these have had meanings. Today many given, or first names, come from Hebrew, Greek, Latin or Teutonic languages. (Anglo-Saxon is closely related to the Teutonic tongue.)
In early times great significance was attached to the meaning of names. For example, let us take the Bible character Ruth. Her name probably means “friendship.” This young Moabitess, the daughter-in-law of Naomi, lost her husband in death. When Naomi decided to go back to her home in Bethlehem, in the territory of Judah, Ruth was determined to go with her. To Naomi’s insistence that she remain with her own people, Ruth answered: “Do not plead with me to abandon you, to turn back from accompanying you; for where you go I shall go . . . Your people will be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16) How well Ruth lived up to the meaning of her name!
While at the birth of a child, the parents or some close relative would impose a name on it, years later this name was often changed, or an additional one was given that would more vividly describe some characteristic of the individual. For example, no longer viewing her name to be appropriate in view of the calamities that had befallen her, Naomi said: “Do not call me Naomi [my pleasantness]. Call me Mara [bitter].”—Ruth 1:20.
Sometimes God himself changed the names of persons for a specific purpose. For instance, when Abram (meaning “father of exaltation”) was 99 years old, God changed his name to Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude,” and reaffirmed His promise that his offspring would become many.—Genesis 17:1-6.
Use of Surnames
As could be expected, with the increase in population came the increased problem of identifying persons with the same name. Thus developed the use of surnames. These were also known as nicknames (although not all nicknames are surnames). According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, surnames can be divided into five different classifications: (1) The description of a person’s appearance; (2) the record of an incident or exploit in one’s life; (3) to identify him by his connection with some other person, usually his father; (4) to give his residence; (5) to show his occupation.
Were such names practical? Well, consider a situation where many in a community had the name “John.” How were they to be distinguished from one another? One “John” might have been very tall while another one was very short. What better way to distinguish them than “Big John” and “Little John”? Another “John” might have been a carpenter. What was he called? Perhaps “John the Carpenter.”
Many of these surnames became fixed, resulting in family names. Actually, it is believed that family names were first used by the Chinese. The Romans also used a sort of family name, but this faded out with the decline of the Roman Empire, and single names once again became customary.
Not until about 1200 C.E. did family names become common again. The continued increase in population and the need for specific records were among the reasons for this. Gradually surnames became family names. Little John, for example, became John Little; Henry, Son of Robert, became Henry Robertson; John at the Wood became John Atwood, and so on.
These family names, however, were not hereditary at first. Henry Robertson’s son, Charles, for example, did not automatically become Charles Robertson. Rather, he was more likely identified by one of the five classifications mentioned above. If he developed skill in woodwork, he may have become known as Charles Carver.
At first it was only the nobility who passed on family names as a sort of family pride. Gradually, however, the practice became more and more popular, as common people adopted the custom. By the later Middle Ages this practice became widespread in many countries, especially in the Western world, and it is used freely in most countries today.
Here in Zimbabwe the conventional family name is used by those of European extraction, but many of the indigenous peoples use other methods. For instance, in many parts of the country, if the name of the father is James Mufunga, his son, David, will be known as David James, not David Mufunga. Unmarried women, in some instances, will be known by their father’s first name until they get married. After that they are known by their husband’s first name. You can imagine the problems this creates in record keeping!
Another interesting practice in this country is one similar to that of the ancient Hebrews, that is, using names to fit events, circumstances, feelings, and so forth. During one of the “Victorious Faith” conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1978, the wife of a full-time minister gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Without hesitation, the happy parents called the son “Victor” and the daughter “Faith.”
Reputation and Office
When your name is mentioned, what image of you comes up in the mind of the hearer? Well, that really depends upon what you are as a person, doesn’t it? This brings us to another use of the word “name”—one’s reputation. “A [good] name is to be chosen rather than abundant riches,” says Proverbs 22:1. Obviously this is talking about a person’s standing or reputation. If a person has a “good name” in the community, he is looked upon as being upright and honest, with good moral standards. While you were not able to select the name you were given at birth, it is really up to you how that name will be received by others.
A name might also have to do with the office, or authority, of an individual. Government representatives are often referred to as speaking “in the name of” their government, meaning “by the authority of” their government. Similarly, when Jesus Christ said that we were to use his name to pray to God, he meant more than just using the name “Jesus” as if he were some sort of switchboard operator relaying requests to God. (John 14:13, 14) Rather, we need to recognize his office, his authority as God’s representative and High Priest. Thus, when praying in his name, we are asking that his authority be exercised in our behalf, making our prayers acceptable to God.
The Greatest Name of All
The psalmist writes: “You, whose name is Jehovah, you alone are the Most High over all the earth.” (Psalm 83:18) Yes, Jehovah is the name of the Sovereign Ruler of the universe. It is exclusive and does not rightfully belong to anyone else. According to the root of the name in Hebrew, it is understood to mean “He Causes to Become.” It calls attention to the fact that he unfailingly fulfills what he promises and that he is in complete control of whatever situation may arise.
Likely you love and respect your name. But how do you feel about God’s name? “For God is not unrighteous so as to forget your work and the love you showed for his name.” (Hebrews 6:10) Do you love God’s name? It is not simply a matter of knowing he has a name. We need also to know the Person represented by the name—his purposes, activities and qualities. And that knowledge should be reflected in every aspect of our lives. Would you like to get to know God’s name in this sense? Jehovah’s Witnesses will gladly assist you.
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Do you know what the greatest name in the universe is?