Why are meaningful names so rare in modern English?

Inspired by this thread.

Many cultures in the modern and ancient world have personal names that mean something. A person’s given name might translate as mountain, or river, or courage and so on.

In modern English, given names frequently mean something in foreign or ancient languages. Gaelic speakers might name their sons Darren, which means ‘hill’ (or so I’m told.) English speakers might copy the name, but very few of them will call their sons ‘Hill’ Why not? When and why did we stop doing this?

I can’t think of many common meaningful names other than Dawn, Hope and Faith.

From the movie Silkwood:

"For as long as anyone could remember, an old man in an
Indian tribe had been responsible for naming the newborn
children. One of the braves began to wonder how the old man
managed to come up with the names he did; and one day the
brave summoned his courage and went to the old man and asked
him how he picked out a child’s name.

The old man was silent for a while, then answered:

“I look around me at my surroundings when I learn that a
child has been born, and name that child appropriately. When
I learned of your father’s birth, I heard a jackal howling
in the woods, and so named him Howling Jackal. When your
mother was born, I heard of it while standing by a running
brook, so she was named Running Brook. Now, tell me why
you want to know, Two Dogs Fucking. . . .”

My name real name is Maverick and it has real meanings ranging from a stray cow to a cowboy type. I always liked it at least before Top Gun came out.

Names themselves can be meaningful apart from their literal definition. For example, my Great-grandmothers name was Catherine and my grandmother decided to name my mother the same, in honor of her grandmother. Also my father was the third in line with his name, Xxxxx Xxxx III. So even if many people don’t use the literal dictionary definitions to pick names, they are still meaningful to the family.

Some of my favorite names are the virtues: Constance, Patience, Prudence, Grace, Charity, Chastity along with Faith and Hope as you mentioned. They come and go in popularity.

I had a friend in Junior High whose name was Pine. I though it was beautiful, but she preferred to go by Barbi. Not everyone is comfortable with a meaningful name. Look at the ridicule that Gwyneth Paltrow received over her daughter Apple.

I suspect that the conquering of England by the Romans and then the Normans replaced meaningful names in English with meaningful names in Latin and French.

Plus until not too recently, names were almost all biblical. Even if those names were meaningful in the books’ original languages, they weren’t in English.

Thought of some more: Ivy, Rose, June, Cotton.

I think this is it. After Christianity took hold, biblical names (especially saint’s names) were preferred, if not required. I can remember as recently as the early 60s, the local priest almost wouldn’t baptize my cousin because my aunt and uncle didn’t give him a saint’s name. He only relented because my cousin had a saint’s name for his middle name.

Remember that your first name is, historically in English, your “Christian name”.

English biblical names aren’t in the Bible’s original languages either. Almost all of them are translated either completely or by pronunciation into other languages. I am not sure what it means for a name to be of one language but there was no one by the name of Jesus Christ 2000 years ago. His name was Yeshua or something similar although this is just a phonetic interpretation with no strict spelling.

If names can be said to be native to a given language, James, Matthew, Mark and others are as English as any other.

Like many words in English, names were influenced by the Norman invasion and the French language.

In addition to the virtues and flowers that others have already mentioned, women also can get gem names, like Ruby or Pearl. And then there’s times of the year: April, May, June, Summer, Autumn. I’m not sure why it is, though, that women get so many more English-word names than men.

Agreed that there are *some *names that are English words. But most of them are not very common. I’ve never actually met anyone named Ruby, Pearl, Summer or Autumn. My question states that they are rare, compared to some other cultures, including historical England, not that they don’t exist.

Grace seems to be continuously popular. I’ve known women of all ages, including recently born children, named Grace.

A lot of old english names had literal meanings or were compounds of old english words (Lyulph, for example, is a compound of the old english words for “flame” and “wolf”). When the Normans invaded they brought their language and their names with them. After several hundred years English reasserted itself as the dominant language but apparently they kept on using the invaders names - understandable if you’re Robert, son of Robert, son of Robert, etc. Ultimately I guess the convention of using common words from your own language as names was lost.

Oh there are plenty. Obviously you haven’t met many strippers/poor people.

If you are wondering about the etymology of a name, try here: http://www.etymonline.com/

Peter Morris, one of my great-grandmothers was named Opal.

I always get a kick out of that scene in Pulp Fiction

Esmeralda: What is your name?
Butch: Butch.
Esmeralda: What does it mean?
Butch: I’m American, honey. Our names don’t mean shit.

Which is funny precisely because “Butch” is the only character in the movie whose first name does have a (well-known and currently used) meaning.

But quite a few names in the Bible flat out tell you what they meant. Plus, every baby name book I’ve seen seems to have the meanings of the names.

Oh, and my sister’s middle name is Grace, and her first name means graceful. I, on the other hand, am named after my dad and a name he heard that he thought sounded cool.

from the book of knowledge in the 60s. noble english families assumed the names of their locales whereas more common englishmen took the names of their trades (which makes economic sense.)


some names were descriptive: