While researching Cherokee Indians for my forthcoming novel, I was struck by how their traditional names always meant something. Their names could also change as they got older. A baby might start life being called Dustu (Spring Frog.) Then during childhood gain a new name based on a gift, physical trait, or maybe an event he or she becomes known for. Think Tsiyu Gansini (Dragging Canoe,) Junaluska (Bushyhead,) Degataga (Standing Firm,) or Nanye-Hi (Wanderer.) We find it charming since the names most of us use these days don’t mean anything. Or do they?
Take the name Jennifer. I know a good many women with that name. It’s likely their parents chose it based on how fashionable it was when their Jennifer was born, not for what it means.
Jennifer may mean "the fair one.” It's a Cornish version of the Welsh Gwenhwyfar and the Old Irish Findabair. Despite the name's similarity to the Old English words "jenefer," "genefer" and "jinifer," which refer to the juniper tree, experts think it's not related. You can also find posts online suggesting Jennifer may mean “white fairy” or “white ghost.” But it was a character in an early 20th century play called The Doctor's Dilemma by George Bernard Shaw that triggered the rise in the number of Jennifers. It became so popular, in fact, that Jennifer was the single most popular name for newborn American girls every single year from 1970 to 1984. Alas, it’s losing popularity these days, having dropped out of the top 100.
Some cultures continue to choose names for children based on meaning. It’s still the norm in China, for instance. Babies start with a “milk name,” move to a “school name,” plus a nickname that says something about them, like Big Ox, Treasure, or Regret, and maybe a “courtesy name,” plus other names.
Originally, everyone’s name meant something. But in the era of naming children for performers or famous people, or creating names that sound pleasing to the ear, we’ve lost touch with names based on meaning.
If my parents had followed Cherokee naming customs, I might’ve started out as Roly Poly Thighs, moved on to She Who Waddles, then to Lead Foot, and then maybe She Who Talks A Lot.
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