What are students to think of naming and its implications?

It comes up regularly, and did the other day. “The Romans,” I was saying, writing on the whiteboard, “sometimes Latinized barbarian names. They used their own exonyms: Arminius for Hermann, Caratacus for Caradog, Boudica for Buddug, Ariovistus for Heerfürst….”

“Why did they do that?” asked someone.

  • Naming is often associated with power, as in the story of Rumpelstiltskin; and travellers told of tribes in South America where a man’s name was known only to himself and his mother: everyone else knew him by a pseudonym.
  • The real name of Rome was apparently known only to priests, lest enemies might use the name to pronounce a curse.
  • The worst mistake of Odysseus was to reveal his name to Polyphemus, who could then use it, and did.
  • Helen Keller, made blind and deaf in her infancy, records how when she was six, her teacher held one of her hands under a tap and wrote ‘water’ on the other. In that moment she understood that things could have names, and it was the turning point that began her remarkable career.
  • ‘And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.’
  • Churchill delighted in calling Hitler ‘Schicklgruber’ (his father’s birth name, which he had later changed).
  • And, re the changing of names: someone—source unknown—was in the queue for Lenin’s tomb behind a very old woman. She had waited for hours; then she stepped up to the tomb, and he could hear her murmuring, “Curse you, Vladimir Ilyich, for all the evil you have done to my family,” and then she recited the names of her lost menfolk.
  • In Lord of the Rings, according to Aragorn, Sauron does not ‘use his right name, nor permit it to be spelt or spoken.’


Meanwhile, exonyms are everywhere: Poland for Polska, Spain for España, Japan for Nippon, Munich for München, Leghorn for Livorno, Flushing for Vlissingen; Londres for London, Tamise for Thames… and the Vikings’ name for Istanbul (or Constantinople, or Byzantium) was Miklegård.

Next post: The absence of Odysseus.



One thought on “Naming

  1. Isn’t it also necessary to Latinize names (or at least their endings) so that they can be inflected to show case?

    For instance, “Confucius” is a Latinization of “Kung Fuzi.” It’s easy to choose a declension for “Confucius” and inflected for the nominative, accusative, etc, accordingly.

    But how would one use “Kung Fuzi”—or “Hermann,” “Caradog,” etc—in a Latin sentence? Is it even possible?

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