Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Review: A Treasury of Baby Names

Title: A Treasury of Baby Names

Author: Alan Benjamin (not known to be same person as the author of all those picture books for slightly older babies)

Date: 1983

Publisher: Signet

ISBN: none

Length: 215 pages

Quote: “Abayomi—Yoruba/Nigeria: ‘she who brings joy’.”

After a short table of sun signs and birthstones associated with the day on which the baby might be born, this book moves directly into the list of names and their meanings, or at least of words from which they were presumed to derive.

Readers should know that most names don’t actually have precise meanings. Even when a given name is identical with a word or phrase, the person who gave it to a child may have had a completely different “meaning” in mind.

“Malady,” which was the given name of a doctor who used to practice in Washington, is one of several names that aren’t popular enough to be “defined” in books like this one. As a word “malady” is defined as "any disorder or disease of the body, or any undesirable or disordered condition". Obviously that was not what the doctor’s parents had in mind when they looked at their new baby. Going by sound, I suspect they were thinking of “my lady,” and may even have changed the spelling to honor the baby’s Grandma. As a word “malady” sounds closer to “melody,” which is listed in most name dictionaries. (As a name “Melody” is usually defined in terms of the word: "a song or tune...a pleasing series of musical notes.")

If your given name happens to be “Melody,” however, that does not necessarily mean that your parents were thinking of the word. They might have been thinking of a friend or relative, even a celebrity or fictional character.

For several names, especially the ones derived from the family names of famous people, parents who bestow the name on a child are unlikely to care which words the name may originally have derived from.

“Lincoln,” for example, is known to be the name of a place in England. The place name is thought to derive from the name of a Roman colony, colonia, although there is some dispute about the original meaning of the “lin” part. (Benjamin gives “settlement by the pool,” from old English lynn, meaning the pool below a waterfall. Some other name dictionaries give “town of linden trees,” or “colony with snakes,” from linnr, a serpent…) As a family name “Lincoln” is rare. Most people have heard of it only in the context of a particularly memorable President of the United States. People who call their children “Lincoln” may have seen, or hoped, any number of resemblances between Abraham Lincoln and the child:

* The baby was long and thin.

* The baby had dark hair and eyes and relatively fair skin.

* The parents hoped the child would be honest. (President Lincoln’s supporters called him “Honest Abe.’)

* Or they hoped he would live to grow old. (President Lincoln did not, in fact, live to become very old, but his supporters also called him “Old Abe.”)

* Or they hoped he would become President…of something.

* Or they hoped he’d at least have a presidential manner.

* Or they hoped he’d grow up to practice “malice toward none and charity toward all.” (President Lincoln’s election led directly to a war, after which President Lincoln aroused further controversy by trying to make peace on the most generous possible terms.)

Or they may have wanted to honor President Lincoln’s memory, regardless of any resemblance or lack of resemblance to an infant (few babies really look much like President Lincoln). Or they may have wanted to honor some friend or relative who’d been named after President Lincoln. Anything is possible.

So the interpretation of given names is not an exact science. If you want, either to pick one dictionary and stick to it, or to collect dictionaries and compare them, this book is for you.

I collect them, for my on-disk Words & Names Database. Having digitized the contents of this dictionary, I’m ready to pass my copy along.

My copy is the first printing. What you see at the Amazon link above is a second printing, which is still available new. Since I don't know whether the author of these books is still alive and don't particularly want to track him down, feel free to buy either copy. If you want to support this web site, however, please send $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to the appropriate address of the bottom of the screen. (That means, if sending a real-world postal money order to the P.O. Box address, you pay the surcharge directly to the post office and send me $10; if sending a Paypal payment, you send me $11 out of which I pay the surcharge.) If you don't specify the first or second edition, you will receive whichever is easier to get at the moment.