Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The meaning of names from mythology

I thought a fun, easy read for today is in order. Myths often contain hidden metaphors in the names of characters. However, as names tend to change more slowly than the rest of language, the meaning of a name is forgotten: lying dormant in wait of a linguist's re-discovery. Today I'm going to list the meanings of many names of people and beasts from popular legends. This list was compiled with help from the Online Etymological Dictionary.

Hercules: Meant "Hera's glory." Kind of odd since in the stories Hera is the enemy of Hercules.

Eve: "A living being." Douglas Harper quotes the linguist Robert Alter as suggesting the name Eve may have been an ancient play on words, as the name "sounds suspiciously like the Aramaic word for serpent."

Icarus & Daedalus: Icarus' name is lost but Daedalus meant "the cunning worker." Daedalus built the horrifying labyrinth of King Minos that housed the minotaur. He tried to escape imprisonment with his son, Icarus, by creating artificial wings. In their flight out of the prison, Icarus' pride led him to fly to high. The sun's heat melted the wings' glue and he plummeted to his death.

Moses: Unknown but probably a Hebraization of the Egyptian language mes "child." The explanation that the name means "drawn from water" is not tenable; the semantical confusion probably represents an ancient similarity in sound between mes and Hebrew mashah "he drew out."

Mercury: "Merchandise." Mercury was originally the god of tradesmen.

Beowulf: "Bear." Literally "bee-wolf."

Kriss Kringle: Originally the name referred to baby Jesus, not Santa Claus. Literally "Christ child."

Lazarus: "God has helped." A very metaphorical name indeed.

Mimir: Norse giant Mimir is a Germanic element meaning "memory." Mimir guarded the Well of Wisdom.

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